May 1st, 2000

'E' is for E-Commerce

By Tim Dickinson
Mother Jones

David Gomez sits in the library at one of California’s poorest schools, searching the Internet on a new computer. The donated machine is designed to offer up dazzling content, tailored to the seventh grader’s needs and interests. Unfortunately, that content has nothing to do with his classwork. While David explores the web, a video plays in its own small frame at the left of the screen: A soldier with a huge rifle storms through the woods. It’s an ad for West Point. Twenty seconds later, the cadet is replaced by a video from Kodak that entices: “For a good time click here.” David keeps working—until he’s distracted by a promotion for Xerox. He clicks, and finds himself immersed in a full-screen interactive ad. “Yeah,” says another student, looking over his shoulder.  “I clicked that too.”

This 21st-century educational moment was made possible by ZapMe, a corporation that uses commercial sponsorship to help bridge the digital divide in schools like the one David attends in East Oakland.

ZapMe is the digital successor to Channel One, the satellite TV network that broke the taboo of advertising in the classroom a decade ago. Channel One, which is now seen by 40 percent of American teens, lends schools the equipment needed to watch its commercial-sponsored newscasts. Similarly, ZapMe provides schools with computer labs—typically 15 computers with broadband satellite Internet access—free of charge.

But unlike Channel One, where the ads are passive and limited to 2 minutes out of a 12-minute newscast, ZapMe’s advertising is both interactive and continuous.  Whether a student is accessing a website or writing a term paper, TV-like ads run in a frame at the lower left of the ZapMe browser. Clicking the frame brings up a full-screen ad window that, in the words of the company’s investor prospectus, allows marketers to “interact with users” and “conduct online surveys, product trials, and online recruiting.”

ZapMe has drawn fire from a coalition of parents, teachers, child-privacy advocates, and even members of Congress who feel the company places a higher value on e-commerce than e-ducation. But the company’s pitch of a “complete technology solution at no cost” has proved attractive to thousands of underfunded schools:  ZapMe currently has access to 1.2 million teenagers in more than 1,200 schools across the country, and the company has signed up an additional 4,500 schools it has yet to bring online. ZapMe projects an audience of 10 million teens— 2 million more than Channel One—by the end of next year.

What the company offers schools isn’t trivial: In addition to computer equipment valued at $90,000, ZapMe provides free software and access to more than 13,000 educational sites screened by a full-time staff and augmented by teacher feedback.

But what ZapMe offers its sponsors—the U.S. Armed Forces,, Yahoo, Nintendo, Dell Computer, Britney Spears, Frito-Lay, and Topps baseball cards, to name just a few—is potentially much more valuable. According to American Demographics, teens are a highly coveted market: They not only spend $141 billion per year but they “have yet to develop firm brand loyalties.” ZapMe sells itself to marketers as the “ideal brand development medium.” By registering teens for free e-mail accounts, the company obtains the age, gender, and school zip code of each student on the network. Using this information, ZapMe can then “microtarget” ads to each sponsor’s desired audience.

Beyond simple brand impressions, ZapMe provides advertisers “up-to-the-minute data on the…effectiveness of the brand messages delivered”—essentially turning students into focus groups. ZapMe also drives customers to e-tailers who accept, in lieu of cash, the ZapPoints students earn for frequent surfing.

Rick Inatome, chief executive of ZapMe, says he’s “absolutely ecstatic” with the company’s growth. Others are decidedly less enthusiastic. Last January, 27 child advocates—ranging from conservative columnist Phyllis Schlafly to media critic Mark Crispin Miller—sent a letter to all 50 governors that pillories the ZapMe model. The company exploits schools to gain access to “a captive audience of children,” the letter says, turning students into “guinea pigs for advertising and marketing firms” and transforming schools and teachers into “instruments of corporate marketing.”

Inatome deflects criticism of “media taking advantage of anybody” as simply outdated, adding that most kids are savvy enough to “filter out” the distraction of the ads.

Joyce Foster, who administers the ZapMe lab at David Gomez’s school in Oakland, is not so sure. Even kids who “know what they’re looking for” will click the ad window, Foster says. “That does grab their attention.”

One ad that has recently captivated her students urges them to “Look at the Pretty Dinosaur.” What follows the click is a video for WarPath: Jurassic Park—a Sony Play Station game in which large-fanged dinos fight to the (graphically bloody) death.

Inatome—who joined the company only a few months ago—maintains that he is working to redefine “a lot of the original concepts in which there was a pure marketing play.” The next generation of the network, he promises, will be “more like public TV,” offering “educationally appropriate sponsorship” akin to that seen on “Sesame Street.” As an example, he describes a Doritos ad that leverages the chips’ trademark crunch to provide a “very important lesson about decibels.”

To many critics, “educationally appropriate” advertising is an oxymoron.  “The aim of propaganda and the purpose of education are diametrically opposed,” says Crispin Miller, professor of media ecology at New York University. “Propaganda, whether it is commercial or political, does not belong in any classroom—any worthwhile classroom.”

Vicki Rafel, vice president for legislation for the National PTA, agrees. “Schooltime should be devoted to instruction and studying,” she says. “Children should be protected from advertising while they’re studying.”

Rafel and the PTA are supporting the Student Privacy Protection Act, a measure proposed by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), which would require schools to obtain parental consent before allowing companies to collect marketing data on their children. “With all due respect to these companies,” Miller says, “the goal here isn’t the education of the children. The goal here is the acquisition of information about these children. First and foremost that’s why they’re there.”

Miller maintains that corporate inroads into education could be halted if Americans were committed to adequately funding schools. “Our unwillingness to make that kind of investment,” he says, “shouldn’t turn our children into little objects of commercial acquisition or advertising—little marketing targets.”


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