Mass. lawmakers weigh ban on all marketing in schools

BOSTON --Critics say it's an insidious threat to school children -- responsible for everything from obesity and family stress to gender stereotyping and financial woes.

It's marketing, and lawmakers in Massachusetts are weighing a bill that would ban virtually all advertising in schools -- creating "commercial free zones" from kindergarten through high school.

The proposed ban, described as the most sweeping in the country, would prohibit everything from scoreboard ads to book covers plastered with product logos. It would even ban news broadcasts in classrooms and music broadcasts on school buses that carry advertising.

Virtually the only marketing allowed would be logos that are part of the packaging of a product -- a bag of Fritos could still carry the Fritos logo.

"Children are assaulted by commercial messages in almost every aspect of their lives and the schools to the extent possible should be a haven," said Robert Weissman, manager director of the Washington DC-based non-profit group Commercial Alert.

One target of the bill is Channel One, a daily public affairs program shown in 300,000 classroom nationwide.

A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics found students remember more of the two minutes of advertising than the 10 minutes of news stories in each broadcast.

Linda Vickery pulls her daughter out of her seventh grade classroom during Channel One broadcasts, fed up with what she says is a lack of follow-up discussions and pervasive ads.

"It's not teaching my child anything except how to consume more and more," said Vickery, who lives in Lunenburg, 50 miles west of Boston. "They don't want to develop her mind. They want to develop her spending habits."

Channel One spokeswoman Amanda Cheslock said the company doesn't comment on pending legislation, but noted the show won a Peabody Award last year.

Another target is Bus Radio, a Needham, Mass.-based company that creates a satellite radio broadcast of what it describes as age-appropriate music and ads for school buses. It's on about 1,000 buses in 11 states.

The company markets the broadcast as a way to quiet boisterous students without R-rated lyrics. But critics say, like Channel One, Bus Radio is capitalizing on a captive audience.

Bus Radio president Steven Shulman said many school buses already have commercial radios. What his company is doing is offering a sanitized version.

"We use the audio to play appropriate messages, PSA's and safety messages," Shulman said.

Each hour of radio also includes eight minutes of ads.

While some school districts have barred Channel One, Bus Radio and other forms or marketing, Massachusetts would be the first to create a statewide ban under the bill, according to sponsor state Rep. Peter Koutoujian. The bill was the subject of a recent public hearing.

Koutoujian, D-Waltham, says marketers are trading on the trust parents and students place in their schools.

"If it's an advertisement in our school system then it has implicit support from our schools," he said. "Even if children don't like school, they know school cares about them."

But state Rep. Brad Jones, the House Republican leader, said it's unclear how far the ban would go, whether it would bar posters for colleges or the military or T-shirts with rock band logos. He also said the ban is unnecessary.

"It's like the thought police," said Jones, R-North Reading. "Any school district that has a problem can choose to ban ads anyway."

Advertising in schools is desirable for marketers in part because schools are relatively free of the advertising "clutter" of television, according to Juliet Schor, a professor at the Sociology Department at Boston College and author of "Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture."

Advertising in schools feeds gender stereotypes, making boys more obsessed with weapons and girls more obsessed with makeup, according to Wheelock College education professor Diane Levin.

It also dampens a child's natural curiosity and undermines their relationship with parents, teachers and peers.

"It teaches them to associate happiness and well being with what they consume rather than having meaningful experiences in their immediate environment," she said.