Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Born to Buy and Class Dismissed

A few months ago, I posted about a visit to a girls’ clothing store with a friend, which, I discovered to my horror, was selling candy at the registers. At the time. I mentioned this to people I know, and they seemed far less shocked than I was about it. It slowly dawned on me that although I know quite a bit about contemporary marketing, the fact that I spend so little time around young children has shielded me from a full appreciation of the massive expansion in the scale and scope of the commercialization of childhood, which others perhaps have gradually become more accustomed to over the past couple of decades.

The disturbing realization in the store led me to move a book I’d been planning to read for some time, Juliet Schor's Born to Buy: The Commercialized Childhood and the New Consumer Culture (2004)

to the top of my list. I just finished the chapter on marketing in schools, my reading punctuated literally by series of exclamation points in the margins and figuratively by moments of scandalized laughter.

Here’s a snippet:
[Roberta] Nusim’s company, Youth Marketing International, has produced 1,500 curricular programs. She now has many competitors, who annually produce thousands of these sponsored educational materials, or SEMs….

…SEMs have made huge inroads into American classrooms in the past two decades, with little awareness by parents and the public…. [L]arge sums of money have yielded an unprecedented ability to put out corporate messages. Revlon’s curriculum taught kids about “good and bad hair days” and asked them to list their three must-have hair care products if they were stranded on a desert island. Campbell Soup Company’s Science Curriculum included the “Prego Thickness experiment” with a “slotted spoon test” to figure out whether Prego or Ragu spaghetti sauce was thicker….

For corporations, one of the appealing aspects of SEMs is that they can market covertly, and thereby more effectively…. (pp. 92-3)
Remember that this was published in 2004, and describes just one aspect of the corporate invasion of education. How much worse things must be today.

So I decided to see if Youth Marketing International was still around and how they were doing. They are, and apparently fine. They seem to have rebranded themselves Young Minds Inspired as a PR ploy. Like many such operators, they maintain two sites (I won’t link to either): one potential clients will find by searching for “Youth Marketing International” and another that educators (and parents) will find searching for “Young Minds Inspired.” Their sales pitch to clients speaks for itself:
YMI offers a unique way to market your message to teachers, preschoolers, young children, ‘tweens, teens and young adults. We reach all of these audiences in the uncluttered environment where students spend the better part of their day and where lasting attitudes are formed—in the classroom.

What We Can Do

Based on your marketing needs, YMI will develop an in-school, curriculum-based program comprised of customized print, multimedia and/or interactive online elements.

A YMI program will:

  • Integrate your brand into lessons and activities that students will spend hours interacting with in a positive and meaningful way.
  • Give your message special credibility and importance to young people as well as their parents, by having teachers they admire and respect present these materials in the classroom.
  • Extend your message beyond the classroom via take-home activities.
  • Deliver the message that your company values learning and cares about families.

  • Following the completion of each program, YMI gathers teacher feedback and provides post-program analysis of results that measure its success.

    Who We Reach

  • YMI can reach students and teachers in preschool through college. We can also reach athletic coaches, administrators, librarians, and other influential educators.
  • Through customized take-home components, YMI programs can also reach parents and other family members.
  • YMI’s Teacher Connection is our proprietary and continuously updated database of educators who request and use our programs.
  • Our targeted distribution system can deliver your program to every school in the U.S. and beyond or to selected schools based on geography, market size, proximity to retail locations, ethnicity, and/or income level.
  • Also darkly amusing is the “What Clients Say” page, proudly displaying the logos of the corporations pleased with this vehicle to get their propaganda to captive students (it’s important to note that, as Schor discusses, the message the students are getting, disguised as part of the regular educational curriculum, is not just marketing for a specific product but the larger message of corporate beneficence and the corporate line on such crucial issues as AGW and the environment, industrial agriculture, animal rights, and child nutrition*).

    The materials (found by searching for “YMI classroom”) would be funny if they weren’t real and presumably being used in actual classrooms. Teachers, librarians, and coaches can choose amongst, for example, “Get it going with GOYA,” “KNOW Hunger” provided by Tyson chicken nuggets, “Wonders of Wireless” from Samsung, an “Ecoimagination” Student Outreach Leaders Guide provided by GE, “Cool Foods for Kids” from the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association, “Refuel with Chocolate Milk,” and a “Step Up to a Healthier You” supplement courtesy of the Pork Board.

    As Schor mentions, these propaganda schemes have emerged as a perverse response to the defunding of public education and the resulting lack of resources for teachers (often leading them to use their own personal funds to buy instructional materials). But this is just part of an organized rightwing campaign to privatize and corporatize public education generally. These, of course, feed each other, as they’re meant to: decommitting to public education opens doors for corporate propaganda in schools, which in turn is hoped to produce adults who are less capable of thinking critically about corporations and less inclined to resist their incursion into and influence in education and politics. Precisely at a time when kids should be developing skeptical and critical-thinking skills and being encouraged to use them, they’re being subjected to veiled propaganda from powerful organizations.

    Speaking of education and politics, a great book I read recently is John Marsh’s (2011) Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality:

    Marsh, an educator who for years participated in educational opportunity programs, argues:
    [I]f inequality is affected by more than just education, then education is neither a necessary nor sufficient strategy to aid the poor and working poor. …I have tried to show how it is not sufficient, but equally important, it is not necessary either. Given the political will, whether through redistributive tax rates, massive public works projects, a living wage law, or a renaissance of labor unions, we could decrease poverty and inequality tomorrow regardless of the market or the number of educated and uneducated workers. In the meantime, Americans could remain as stupid [sic] - or as smart [sic] - as they are now. These policies also have the advantage of reducing poverty and inequality in the short term, straightaway, unlike schemes to boost the supply of educated workers or equalize educational opportunity, which will take at least a generation to unfold. (KL 1339-1345)
    Over the years, not surprisingly, I’ve heard the education solution suggested by many students. I have to say that I’ve never quite understood how people don’t see the flaws. It’s an individual-level solution to a structural problem, like interview-training programs for unemployed people. It’s a fundamental failure of the sociological imagination, and a major hurdle to be overcome.

    Anyway, in addition to making a solid argument for why education isn’t a real solution to structural inequality - and contributing to the case that, in fact, reducing inequality should improve educational outcomes - Marsh offers an enlightening history of the projects to which public and higher education have been harnessed in the US over the past centuries (the story of the workers of Wheeling, VA, rejecting a library funded in part by Andrew Carnegie in the early twentieth century is delightful). I have few significant criticisms. The first is that he gives short shrift to the role of a genuine education in enabling people to fulfill their human potential and to participate fully in political life. Second, and related to this, he pays little to no attention to more radical educational movements in the US that have had goals other than the instrumental ones we hear so much about. Finally, the activism he espouses – though with limited confidence about its success – is overwhelmingly focused on working within the system and not appreciative of possibilities for more substantial change. (I think people often assume a positive relationship between the radicalism of goals or actions and the odds against their success, but I don't think this is necessarily true by any means.)

    *For instance: “Some of the worst examples of bias have been found among corporate environmental materials. In the early 1990s, energy, paper, and other primary materials companies became concerned about what they considered an excessively proenvironmental attitude among the nation’s youth. They worried that existing environmental education curricula were exacerbating those sentiments. So the companies began what can only be described as an expensive propaganda effort to obscure the nature of the environmental problems facing the planet….” (p. 94). The shaping of environmental thinking by Sea World via educational outreach is described in some depth in Susan G. Davis’ Spectacular Nature.

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