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The Marketing of Our Children

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I have this image in my mind, drawn from years of listening to my father's old radio shows and watching tapes of early live television programs. My son is sitting in his kindergarten class getting ready to learn about how Hannibal marched across Richmond on a band of war elephants to invade Scotland when the teacher closes the book and says, "More of our lesson after this word from our sponsor, Lucky Strike, makers of the cool and invigorating Black Lung Cigarette."

A touch absurd, but only just. Public education is slowly making its way in that direction.

The partnership between the public education system and private business has become a little too friendly. I know it makes for clever business, but it's a little short-sighted. Long ago it was just the little magazine from Scholastic that came once a quarter, urging kids to get their parents to buy them cool books. My parents hated that, but would begrudgingly fork out their hard-earned money for me to buy a joke book or the latest Hardy Boys mystery. It was, after all, educational, at least in the sense that I was reading.

But at some point between then and now, some clever marketing slug got the idea that there was an untapped gold mine sitting at those little desks. Advertisers had known for years that if you show children a commercial for a cool toy, they'll bug mom and dad for it until Christmas. Why not get the schools and the PTA in on the action?

Now marketers come to elementary schools and give their sales pitches to the kids during lunch. Joe Salesguy explains that if you sell 500 boxes of chocolate-coated steel surprise, you win a free iPod! And a full 5 percent goes toward the school's mystery fund. The PTA holds a raffle to give away an Xbox, and proceeds from the raffle go to the PTA fund for starving metaphors. Next Tuesday is XYZ night at McDonald's, so crowd in — 10 percent of every purchase goes to the school. The Holiday Store is selling snow monkeys, and only losers don't have a snow monkey, so if your parents forgot to send you any money, call them up from the office or use the ice cream money they gave you. Every 50th snow monkey sold gives the PTA a free … well … snow monkey.

The list is endless. Now, I don't mind a little fundraising here and there. But it can be done a bit more discreetly. The schools already send home messages to the parents in the kids' school folders; why not include all this sales and fundraising junk in that and let the parents decide? When the schools pitch it to the students first, it's pretty clear why they're doing it. They want buy-in from their captive sales force.

And that's where it rubs me the wrong way. I don't send my children to school to become robots selling for big business. If they want to do that for a living, they can make that choice when they get older. I certainly have dirtied my hands a few times in those waters. But we expect a higher standard from our schools. We have entrusted in them our most valuable of jewels, our children. They are there to learn and be protected from the nasty world until such time as we release them into it. Indoctrinating them on how to get free gizmos by selling crap to their neighbors is too much like the adult world. Hand them a Coke and a carton of smokes and you'll have the picture complete.

So let's look at it from the view of the business model. It's great for the participating business, but is a little one-sided for the school. Usually the amount taken in for the school is a pittance of what is taken in by the business entity. Spend $600 on bowling and the school gets $100. Why not just ask for donations and get $200 for the school and nothing for the business? Sell $500 of junk to your parents' friends and co-workers, and you win an iPod and the school gets $50. Why not ask for donations and get $100 for the school, and buy your kid an iPod on your own? The school wins, your kid wins, and the business doesn't make $250 off people who are now afraid to see you in the halls for fear you'll try and sell them something.

We tried pointing this out to our school and received a fairly cold reception. Possibly we used up all of our brownie points trying to cut down on the brownies being served every 10 minutes. The Great Sugar Battle of 2007 was met with only limited success, pending rampant diabetes outbreaks and a chorus of "I told you so's."

But it's our right and responsibility to keep an eye on what our public servants are doing with our children. Schools are always complaining that parents aren't getting involved. Well, me buckos, we're involved until it hurts. And the logical repercussion is that you'll be hearing from us when you start doing stupid stuff. Cut back on the stupid stuff, and we'll be quiet.

If the schools need money, try a little honesty first. Let the parents and the community know what you need, and what you need it for, and see what you get. You might be surprised how well that works, especially when the parents see you aren't pimping out their children.

Or don't they teach that in schools nowadays? S

Christopher O'Kennon is a freelance writer who lives in Mechanicsville.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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