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Advertisers relentlessly target school kids


Jeff Smith

The Grand Rapids Press
February 16, 2008

On Jan. 18 The Press ran the article "Music keeps kids humming as buses roll" about how school districts in Hudsonville, Zeeland, Hamilton and Wayland are now using a commercial radio service on their school buses. BusRadio is a satellite radio show with Top 40 music, disc jockeys, give-aways, a request line, public service announcements and advertising.

The company installs the equipment for free and according to BusRadio, districts can also earn revenue sharing up to 5 percent. Sounds pretty good doesn't it? The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood offered the only critical perspective in the article about how children don't discern between corporate-sponsored public service announcements and advertising a product. However, the organization's urging to turnoff BusRadio to its captive crowd is dwarfed by the pro-BusRadio comments from some school officials, bus drivers and a BusRadio co-founder and spokesman.

In many ways the issue is not just commercial radio programming that targets kids on school buses. The larger issue is that children are being targeted by commercial messages at an unprecedented level.

In the late 1980s child psychologist James McNeal wrote the book Kids as Customers: A Handbook of Marketing to Children. The basic premise of McNeal's book can be summed up in this quote, "Kids are the most unsophisticated of all consumers; they have the least and therefore want the most. Consequently, they are in a perfect position to be taken."

Since McNeal wrote this book there has been a whole shift in how media companies and advertisers think about children. His framing of children primarily as customers has paved the way for an explosion in the ways that children are targeted by media companies.

There are some media companies that hire teens to spy on their peers and gather intelligence to assist advertisers in crafting commercials messages. News Corp. bought up MySpace a few years back in order to datamine the content that primarily young people were sharing on their Web sites.

Intelliseek, a company in Ohio in one day alone analyzes 475,000 individual blog posts to gauge what they had to say about products or individual companies. The Kaiser Family Foundation did a study "Food For Thought: Television Food Advertising to Children in the United States" (March 2007) that included 13 television networks including ABC, NBC, CBS, MTV, BET and UPN. The study found that more and more junk food and fast food companies not only include their Web addresses in their ads, but have created sites that primarily target kids with games for the purpose of developing brand loyalty.

In many schools, kids have to deal with commercial messages if the district has Channel One, soft drink machines in the halls, fast food vendors in the cafeteria, sponsored book covers, supplemental education materials that companies give to teachers, commercial messages on athletic fields, or ads that are now inserted into text books.

BusRadio is just another manifestation of the hyper-commercialism that kids are exposed to on a daily basis in an educational setting. Add that to the four to six hours a day of TV/computer screen time and you can see how much power these commercial messages will have during the crucial years of childhood development.

And let's be honest about the primary message advertisers communicate -- you are valued by what you consume. When was the last time an ad that was targeted at kids said this, "you don't need anything, just be you."

I certainly understand why schools would welcome the services that BusRadio, Channel One and Coca Cola offer, since most districts are strapped for money. However, there are several problems with taking the services and money these companies provide.

First, most kids are not equipped with the skills to combat the commercial messages they are targeted with. If schools are going to accept these commercial incentives then they need to teach children media literacy skills.

Second, since these issues involve the health and well-being of children, students, parents and taxpayers should have more say in the decisions to allow commercial messages into their educational facilities.

Lastly, taking the money from commercial entities in the short term makes it easier to ignore the issue of why schools are underfunded in the first place.

-- Jeff Smith is director of the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRID), which has been teaching media literacy for nine years in Michigan. He resides in Grand Rapids.


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