Tonight, the Toronto District School Board is debating a motion over whether or not to extend a pilot project that currently sees flat screens being installed in four high schools across the city. If accepted, screens would be installed in 70 schools and 20 more schools in January.
The screens, provided by OneStop Media Group, are intended to enhance the school experience by airing student-generated content highlighting fashion shows and other school activities. For 70% of the time, anyway—because this is also about making money for the board. And there’s the catch: up to 30% of screen time will be given over to what’s being referred to as “non-commercial advertising” (although how Much Music made it into that category along with the Milk Marketing Board and public service announcements is anyone’s guess), netting the board an estimated $100,000 a year.
The response has been mixed. While parents were supposedly pleased with the pilot (though it’s unclear if they were pleased with the commercial content specifically), some trustees are balking at school time and school facilities being used as a marketing medium, offering advertisers access to the highly coveted and lucrative student market. Student trustees Zane Schwartz and Jenny WIlliams are pushing the board to vote down the proposal, pointing out that of the city’s students who responded, a majority do not support this initiative because of the commercial component. According to Williams (quoted in today’s Toronto Star),“I know marketers want access to kids in schools, but if we start down that road, it’s a very slippery slope. The students have already experienced that.”
She’s right, of course. And the immediate and longterm losses to the integrity of the school system far outweigh the minor commercial gains.
Schools offer what markers refer to as a “captive audience”; students cannot simply leave school to avoid advertising (the way they can turn the channel while watching TV) because they are required by law to be there till the age of 16.
Schools legitimize the messages and entities they are associated with. After all, why would the school—a respected institution that is entrusted with the physical, emotional and intellectual well-being of our youth—allow itself to be associated with an entity that might have a self-serving motive for being there? Or little to do with educational well-being (or anything educational)? Or a less-than-stellar reputation? Quick: guess why Walmart and McDonald are two companies that actively participate in what’s called “cause-related marketing”.
Just because school is public, school time is not “free.” We pay good money for it—and commercial initiatives of this sort amount to public time and public resources being given away to private interests to not only profit from access to this audience, but also benefit from all the less tangible qualities the school has to offer—legitimacy, mandatory attendance laws, virtually no competition from other advertisers because of less ad clutter.
Is there an “up” side to schoolhouse commercialism? What if all the money raised from guaranteeing access to student eyeballs goes to a “good cause”: renovating a gym, or buying musical instruments? Here’s the thing: boards are already in cost-cutting mode; they’re scrambling to deal with a Funding Formula that, by design—and tweaks notwithstanding—continues to underfund. So if schools are able to raise money privately to pay for items and programs that belong in the “once were essential but now that times are tights they’re not so essential that we have to fund them publicly to ensure kids all have access to them” category, the board has every incentive to allocate limited funds elsewhere, making the procuring of those programs and items dependent on revenue raised by advertising.
And when schools are dependent on advertising for anything, all sorts of rules change. Guidelines shift. “Non-commercial” can start to look a lot like “non-commercial-ish.”
So let’s get down to brass tacks, all platitudes about student morale and enhanced school experience aside. If the point of this project is to offset costs (read: raise money), why stop at non-commercial ads at $100,000 annually? I mean, $100,000 for 90 schools over the course of the school year is selling access to those young eyeballs pretty cheap: about $5.50 a day, per school….that’s maybe a couple of pennies per student per day. Surely we can do better. Kids are worth more, right? I mean, they are the future. And it does take a village to raise ‘em. So this village better get its act together and get more entrepreneurial. The TDSB should be charging these advertisers a dollar a day per student at least. Forget about the ethics. After all, kids are exposed to ads on a daily basis—they’re practically walking billboards as it is. So what’s so wrong about schools—and let’s not forget advertisers—making a bit of cash off of that lucrative trend?
We could go in that direction, I suppose. If we really feel that initiatives like OneStop Media with just a 30% smidge of advertising is okay, then why should a wee bit more—because the incentive for a wee bit more each year as schools become increasingly dependent on ad revenue is built-in to arrangements of this sort—be problematic? If there’s nothing wrong with 30%, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with 50%. Or even more.
Lines in the sand are notoriously temporary. And as you can probably guess, I’m being a bit sarcastic in arguing the price point at which we can justify selling access to students to the highest bidder. Because the closer you get to commercially compensating for that price point, the more you erode the value of the school and the students it serves.
When considering the “right” way to make money off of commercializing education, the losses always outweigh the gains. Our kids are worth more, and so are our schools. It’s heartening to hear from the student trustees who instinctively know that. Let’s hope that the decision made tonight also reflects that understanding—rather than capitulation to false inevitability.
Erika Shaker is Director of the CCPA’s Education Project.