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In the debate over advertising in school, there are the critics who fling about such fiery phrases as "the commercial prostitution of America's youth." There are the proponents who see corporate endorsements as the only way to deal with budget shortfalls. And then there are people like Michael Boucher, who embraces the positions of both camps and can spend the afternoon arguing with himself.
Sitting in his classroom at Minneapolis's South High School, where he teaches social studies, Boucher is dressed casually in blue jeans and sneakers; his long black hair is held back in a ponytail. He is a longtime subscriber to the Nation ("I suppose you may as well stamp a big L on my forehead," he says) and will start a conversation with a statement like "As a society, we've sold our students to advertisers and multimillion-dollar corporations."
For emphasis, Boucher points to the book he holds in his hand--a glossy organizer provided to Twin Cities students by Denver-based American Student Activity Planner (ASAP). In all, the company has given some 30,000 of the books, worth an estimated $3.50 each, to 14 metro-area schools including three in Minneapolis and four in St. Paul.
A far cry from the workaday vinyl planners found in office-supply stores, the booklets are crammed with full-color pictures, starting with a cartoony cover showing teenagers decked out in space-age armor. Inside are calendar pages printed in a stylized futuristic font, along with space for jotting down phone numbers, URLs and e-mail addresses, and prom arrangements.
And there are ads. Lots of them. Small banner ads sit on the top and bottom of each calendar page, and the sheets in between are crammed with full-page spreads for the likes of Toyota, JC Penney, Kodak, Hasbro, and Unionbay, as well as the U.S. Army and the air force.
"This is problematic on so many levels," Boucher says, pointing to a David's Bridal ad featuring a waifish teenager in a strapless prom dress. "How thin she is, the pouty look on her face. This is obvious sexual objectification of very, very young girls." He flips to the back page and the Unionbay ad that, he says, has the whole school buzzing: It shows a teenage girl, her arms and legs wrapped around a wiry guy in blue jeans.
But despite his misgivings, Boucher has made the planner a requirement in all his classes. While students are free to buy their own, two-thirds of the 150 kids he teaches, and roughly half of South's total student population of 2,000, have opted for the freebies. "My students are involved in eight million sports," Boucher explains. "They have jobs, they have commitments to family, to church. They're incredibly busy. If they're going to do the kind of homework I need them to do, they need the planners to organize their time most efficiently."
For nine years, Boucher explains, he has wanted organizers but didn't require them for fear that some students could not afford to buy one. School administrators told him they couldn't come up with the money either. So when assistant principal Jody Hickman decided to accept ASAP's offer, Boucher kept his complaints to a minimum. "She took a lot a heat from a lot of teachers," Boucher remarks. "But it was the only way. They're a necessary evil because the planners are very necessary and the ads are very evil."
For now, Boucher is trying to turn a paradox into a lesson in civil disobedience. After receiving the planners, he acquired pens and sticky notes, then asked his students to creatively mark up or cover ads they objected to. Four kids, he notes, have systematically ripped out all of the ads--including those at the top and bottom of each page.
They've also made a game of the planners at ASAP's expense. The organizers are riddled with mistakes: August 4 is listed as Independence Day, February is shown to have 31 days, South America is not included on the list of continents, and there are some questionable governmental flow charts that give Congress oversight of agencies of the executive branch. "I gave my students five extra credit points if they can find ten or more errors," Boucher laughs. "Six students got that."
Ryder Clifford, national sales manager for ASAP and one of the company's six founders, is not an advocate of systematic defacement of his product. Other than that, he and Boucher share surprisingly similar views. "In an ideal world, schools shouldn't be in this funding crisis," he emphasizes. "But we're simply offering another way for schools to get needed materials [when they] normally couldn't afford them."
At least, Clifford adds, planners do have a legitimate place in the classroom: "Coke pays a lot of money to have their machines in schools, and they don't promote healthy habits or further educational goals at all," he notes. "But our number-one goal is to provide a useful educational tool." In its promotional materials and sales pitches, ASAP stresses the same notion, that it merely aims to help students learn: Even the answering machine welcomes callers to "the company that donates free day planners."
But ASAP is by no means a group of philanthropists: The firm offers advertisers unique exposure to a group of consumers who last year spent an estimated $141 billion, according to the Illinois-based market-research firm Teenage Research Unlimited. In its first two years in operation, ASAP saw the largest circulation increase of any print-media company in the world, according to Clifford: In the 1998-'99 school year, some 120,000 planners were distributed to schools in Colorado. For 1999-2000, the number is up to one million nationwide, and Clifford says ASAP has already signed contracts to double that number next year.
And yes, Clifford sighs, "Next year February will have 28 days. The informational pages are the most important pages in the planners, and they will all be 100 percent correct." Clifford attributes the mistakes to changes in ASAP's production process; he says the company apologizes for any problems resulting from the misinformation.
Andrew Hagelshaw, senior program director at the California-based Center for Commercial Free Public Education, says he doesn't care how accurate ASAP's planner is: The whole concept is "a travesty," he proclaims. "It's taking advantage of a captive audience of kids, and it sets the public school up as implicit endorser of brand-name products."
The problem, Hagelshaw argues, is that corporate dollars can't fix schools' long-term budget problems. Instead, he says, they set off a vicious cycle: Schools get hooked on the easy money and soon find themselves signing more and more deals to keep the dollars flowing.
Hagelshaw says it all began with the 1989 debut of Channel One, a company that now provides free, commercial-laden news programs to roughly 40 percent of American schools. Since then, a slew of other companies have entered the classroom marketplace: A Phoenix-based apparel firm offers free, corporate-logo-emblazoned gym uniforms. A Texas high school allowed Dr Pepper to paint ads on its roof, directly under the flight path toward the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Schools in the Twin Cities and around the country have handed out book covers with ads for Kellogg's Pop Tarts and Fox TV.
The latest trend, Hagelshaw notes, is the rise of "corporate curriculums" paid for by companies such as Exxon and Procter & Gamble. According to a Consumers Union report released last spring, a science curriculum sponsored by the makers of Prego led students to the conclusion that the sauce was indeed thicker than its competitor.
"It's gone way too far," Hagelshaw concludes. "By taking the planners, the Minneapolis schools have started down a slippery slope, and it's really hard to turn back." Hagelshaw recommends that any school getting into the students-for-dollars game write a concrete plan stipulating just how far it will go.
Amy Barrett, spokesperson for the Minneapolis Public Schools, says the district hasn't devised a plan but does have rules forbidding advertising for certain products, such as tobacco and alcohol. "We have to weigh each case individually," she notes. "In a district where roughly two-thirds of all our students qualify for free and reduced lunch subsidies, we have to consider all offers in order to provide students with tools that can improve their achievement."
Offers the district has accepted include a deal for free folders that sported ads for Fruit Stripe gum and another that made Butterfinger candy bars available to teachers who wanted to use them as a reward. But Barrett stresses that the district has turned down many contracts, especially those that would have required the selling of students' names and addresses to vendors. The district is also firm in its rejection of corporate curriculums and Channel One, says Craig Vana, executive director for teacher and instructional services.
Administrators are also looking at ways of making more money from soft-drink deals. According to Don Haydon, executive director for finance and facilities, the district is interested in a citywide contract to replace the current patchwork of deals negotiated by individual schools. He says he hasn't ruled out the possibility of an exclusive arrangement with one or two manufacturers; Coca-Cola has already made a presentation asking for an exclusive contract, he adds, though they haven't said how much they would pay. As it stands, Haydon notes, schools earn a total of about $150,000 annually through beverage deals; he hopes to double that figure. "We want a consistent district contract that will give us the best return on sales," he concludes.
Boucher, for his part, worries where all that dealmaking may lead. Despite his students' creative efforts, he says, the ads in the ASAP planner are probably having an effect. And the problem seems doubly vexing when there's no easy way out: "We shouldn't have to go begging for a few extra dollars," he complains. "I'd pay for the planners myself if I could come up with the money."
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