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Consumer Group Says Commercialism Invades Classrooms Unchecked

April 18, 1995

NEW YORK (AP) _ Product promoters are increasingly gaining easy access to American schools with advertising and often are including self-serving plugs for their wares in donated teaching materials, a consumer group said Tuesday.

Consumers Union said the developments threaten the integrity of the educational process and urged teachers, parents and school officials to ban ads from schools and be more demanding about donated educational materials.

``No educator who uses these materials argues that commercialism is good,″ Charlotte Baecher, education services director at Consumers Union, told a news conference in presenting the results of an 18-month study.

``They may feel that the end justifies the means. They’re trying to do what is best for the kids. But what we’re saying is commercials and commercialism have no place in the classroom,″ she said.

The nonprofit organization, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine, said chronic school budgetary problems and growing commercialism in society as a whole have made schools more vulnerable to commercial encroachment.

At the same time, it noted competition has risen among marketers to reach the youth market, which has enormous spending power of its own and the ability to influence tens of billions of dollars more spent by parents.

The study, called ``Captive Kids: A Report on Commercial Pressures on Kids at Schools,″ found advertising has proliferated at school in recent years.

Ads are found on scoreboards, in the hallways and in the bathrooms. TV and radio networks tailored to students carry ads throughout the building. Ads were even seen on school buses in one district.

Schools often allow companies to sponsor contests and giveaways and often distribute magazines that sell ads based on how many students they will reach.

``We were even more alarmed to find that much of the advertising has already seeped into the curriculum _ and distorted it _ by way of sponsored educational materials like activity guides and handouts that contain biased and incorrect information,″ Baecher said.

She said more than 100 samples of sponsored educational materials were evaluated, and 68 percent contained biased information that reflected favorably on or ignored competition to products sold by the companies that paid for the material.

The study found Kellogg Co., for example, distributed materials used to teach third and fourth graders about good breakfast eating habits. Consumers Union noted that a poster showed a number of suitable foods but only one identified by brand, Kellogg’s Rice Krispies. It said the materials were ``incomplete with a strong bias toward cereals.″

Karen MacLeod, a spokeswoman for Kellogg’s, said the materials were originally developed for pediatricians but that teachers requested them. She said the material has nutritionally sound information, featured foods other than cereals and included the brand logo only because the brand created it.

``It is branded but we feel it is not inappropriate,″ she said from Kellogg headquarters in Battle Creek, Mich.

The National Livestock and Meat Board was faulted in the study for materials that purported to promote good eating habits but which Consumers Union said had ``a strong bias toward meat and dairy products.″ It said posters showing foods conveyed the message ``eat meat.″

C.J. Valenziano, a spokeswoman for the board in Chicago, said the material featured a variety of fruits, vegetables and other foods. ``I don’t think this in any way can be construed as inapprpriate advertising,″ she said.

Consumers Union also cited Campbell Soup Co., which purported to demonstrate ``The Scientific Method″ by suggesting that students conduct an experiment to see if its Prego spaghetti sauce is thicker than rival Ragu sauce. Consumers Union said the material was biased and was an excuse ``to promote its product under the guise of educating kids.″

Campbell said through a spokeswoman at the company’s Camden, N.J. headquarters that it would evaluate the matter but there was no response by late Tuesday.

Consumers Union’s Baecher said the individual examples may seem innocuous by themselves, but the weight of increasing commercialism in schools poses a real danger to the integrity of the educational system.

She said schools should begin reviewing sponsored materials with the same intensity as textbooks are reviewed and reject those that are biased, subtly pitch a product or omit mention of competitive products.

Arnold Fege, director of governmental relations for the National PTA, applauded the study for documenting the problem.

``Schools are going to have to be more open,″ he said. ``We are not interested in ripping things out of schools but in assuring schools are not used to give leverage to one company or another.″

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