Statutory Commercial Rape

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Maybe so. However, it is altogether questionable that more soundbite communication is helpful to students already trying, with inevitable difficulty, to make sense of a world awash in deftly crafted, fast stimuli. But there is a broader and almost violently irritating issue at stake, which is that adult supervisors of the time and sensibilities of youngsters are willing to rent out their unformed central nervous systems to the highest bidder interested in selling them products. No doubt it makes commercial sense, just as it would make sound commercial sense to have nonstop ads for funeral homes in intensive care units in hospitals. The problem is that it is a moral outrage, pedagogically irresponsible, and a dimwitted abdication of adult judgment.

I work in an institution that snaffled $10 million from a soft drink company to have an exclusive right for about 10 years to sell their brand in the entire institution. There was much solemn murmuring about how that extra money?a tiny portion of the overall budget?would be used for wonderful purposes that would otherwise go unserved (why?), that the drinks were all the same anyway (then why do consumers make choices?) and of course that it was a respectable transaction into which many similar institutions had eagerly flocked. The result is that the first thing you see as you enter nearly every building in the institution is a florid refrigerator box with colorful photos of the tempting obesity-producing fluids for sale. Presumably, another result is that the $10 million charge is factored into the sale price of the sugar water, so that students have to pay that money anyway. And since the dispensers are there, people use them, contributing generously to the growing obesity of American young people, which in a decade or two will produce a near epidemic of diabetes?about 20 years earlier in the life cycle than has been the case heretofore.

As a matter of fact, I am willing to take bets that within 20 years soda machines in educational institutions will be under as severe restriction as cigarette machines are now. But that is another matter.

What is the matter is that the pollution of children's lives by advertisers has extended its intensity and reach. I use the word "pollution" deliberately, because the excitation of childish greed has got to be one of the lowest priorities of a decent society. And the polluters are becoming ever more eager, adept and successful at convincing evidently feebleminded school boards and other administrators that they should be allowed to expand their zones of operation in the minds and schedules of youngsters.

As reported in The New York Times and elsewhere, the General Accounting Office in Washington has just released a report that details the national pattern in larger terms, and there are some local examples that pop out. The New York City Board of Education is currently considering a proposal to provide computers for fourth-grade students onward. Needless to say, the computers might present ads and be configured to make it easy for students to shop through specific sites. Pillars of pedagogy such as Ralph Lauren, Clairol and Philip Morris have generously provided textbook covers that offer students the opportunity to inspect their company names and logos. There is now a new job opportunity emerging for consultants who advise schools and advertisers on attractive ways to place products in schools. Sign up quickly for the new course at the Learning Center.

How lively it all is! The California company Zap Me has offered free computers to schools, which?would you believe?generate flashing ads on their screens. Not only that, the company collects data that students provide about themselves, and in turn these data are sold to advertisers like Microsoft and Toshiba. Toshiba, by the way, is the philanthropic entity that also provides the computers. The next step is surely telemarketing calls to Little Johnny Who Can't Read while he's having his dinner because his television use in school reveals what his consumer preferences are so he can be attacked by vendors in cahoots with school authorities. Meanwhile these authorities who should be smarter and know better are often surprised to discover that using the machines generates data about kids that is rapidly turned to potential commercial advantage. You can be sure that the heads of ad agencies and CEOs of manufacturers who exploit schools in this manner would hit the assembly-hall roof if their precious young-uns in private schools were being used to a turn a buck. The fact is that schools, public or private, are already costly enough and should be able to survive adequately without the relative pittances generated by this squalid exploitation of the unformed young. And it will be amusing to see the responses of cosseted parents influential and successful in the marketplace when the data-gatherers on the purchases of schoolkids extend their scholarly interest to what fancy items tickle the fancy of Mom and Dad.

This is a miserable situation, which will deteriorate unless parents and politicians become alert to what is in effect statutory commercial rape. Innocent victims who are compelled by law to go to school are being compelled also to pay attention to commercial messages bought and paid for by enterprises keen to separate children from their allowances. The zone of relative privacy called childhood has been hemmed in by opportunistic hucksters eager to gain a sale even if they contribute to the selfishness and vulnerability of children who should be left out of the commercial market. There are strict and understandable laws about child producers, and there should be ones designed to protect child consumers, too.

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