November 19th, 2007

Exploitation in the playground

By Michael D. Reid
Victoria Times Colonist

You don’t need a high school diploma to realize there’s something terribly wrong with North America’s public education system, especially when parents in Oregon have to sell their own blood plasma to ensure an underfunded school’s survival.

The parents managed to raise $1,500—far short of the $70,000 required. The school was shut down.

Another telltale sign is when a bunch of paunchy, naked old farmers—raising eyebrows and $250,000 to benefit a school district in Junction City, Ore.—would make a political statement by baring their backsides for a fund-raising calendar.

No wonder so many school boards have struck a Faustian bargain of sorts—allowing fast-food chains, hardware giants and other companies to peddle their products in classrooms in exchange for goods and services.

With governments slashing funding and schools scrambling to pay for playgrounds, classroom supplies, gym equipment and music programs, some say it’s a corporate offer that school trustees simply cannot afford to refuse.

You won’t find Jill Sharpe in that booster club. The Vancouver filmmaker explores both sides of the issue of corporate marketing to students—a $2-billion business in North America—in Corporations in the Classroom.

Her cautionary, sobering and at times infuriating documentary says it’s not OK for corporate influence on schools to grow at the rate it has been.

“What kind of society do we want to be? How much is too much?” asks Sharpe, who will be joined by educators, parents and film buffs during panel discussions tomorrow and Wednesday at Hermann’s Jazz Club and the University of Victoria’s MacLaurin 288, respectively. The talks will follow 7 p.m. screenings being presented as part of the popular Open Cinema series of socially relevant films.

(Admission is by a $5-$10 donation at the door; free for youth and seniors on Wednesday. Visit

Sharpe (Culture Jam, Weird Sex and Snowshoes) was inspired after her hairdresser complained that her children were singing a Home Depot jingle and wearing aprons with its corporate logo at their North Vancouver elementary school, where the big-box hardware store had sponsored construction of a playground bearing its name.

“What amazed me is nobody seemed to mind,” says Sharpe, whose aim is to raise awareness of the issue through chilling stories rather than blame cash-strapped schools or demonize corporations. “In our consumer culture, it’s hard for people to see that link.”

Indeed, the “passionate divide” on the issue Sharpe noticed during a year of research across North America is evident.

She says one of the most surreal moments of her life was capturing footage at a school in Kitchener, Ont., where clowns, parents and store volunteers were singing the praises of Home Depot to celebrate the school’s new playground.

By providing labour and materials, with the school putting up one-third of the cost, the hardware chain gets access to a “full-grown market in waiting—our children.”

It’s one of 1,000 such playgrounds built in as many days across North America.

The film also looks at a school in Newburyport, Mass., where corporations can get a steal of deal buying naming rights for everything from gyms to science labs. After revealing that a reading room fetched $3,000, a perky school official tells us, “The library’s still for sale for $100,000.”

The gymnasium floor isn’t for sale, though. It’s already embedded with an advertisement for Institution for Savings.

Other insidious examples of product placement include learning materials and samples of products from toothpaste to candy. At a Kitsilano school, a teacher displays a colourful M&Ms “textbook” and explains how you drop the candies and count them.

“Getting teachers to do your marketing for you is a good deal if you can pull it off,” notes Anita Chapman, curriculum specialist with the B.C. Teachers Federation, facetiously.

The film also reveals the adverse effects of programs such as Bus Radio, a Massachusetts company that broadcasts radio programs, complete with commercials, to a captive audience of impressionable kids as they ride the school bus.

Says a cash-strapped administrator: “I wish education was funded at the level where we didn’t have to do those things.”

A particularly offensive partnership is with Channel One, a U.S. marketing firm and television outlet that provides free satellite dishes and TV sets to needy schools. In return, students—seven million daily in the U.S., we’re told—just have to watch a minimum number of so-called “news” shows, including commercial breaks, in the classroom.

It’s tantamount to child abuse, and if you’re a parent, you’ll likely find it as heartbreaking as it’s chilling and shameful.

The good news is that businessman Jim Metrock, founder of Obligation Inc., an organization devoted to protecting children, has launched a campaign—Channel Done—to stop it.

“It’s a form of indentured servitude,” he says. “It’s worked off not by the superintendent or school board but by the kids.”

Closer to home, we learn that Canadian Olympic gold medallist Cindy Klassen has something in common with Ronald McDonald.

You might feel like crying “shame” as Klassen is seen shilling for the burger joint at Surrey’s Royal Heights Elementary School, handing out fake gold medals as part of a fitness program sponsored by the Canadian Olympic Committee and McDonald’s.

(Don’t get me started on the hypocrisy of junk food chains promoting fitness as they contribute to soaring obesity rates.)

Although the battle to control such Trojan horse marketing isn’t over, there’s hope. Marketing to children under 13 has been outlawed in Quebec, controlled through legislation in Sweden, Norway and Greece, and prompted stricter guidelines in Seattle and Victoria.

“There is the possibility of change,” says Sharpe. “The tide is turning on this.”


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