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Commercialism in American Public Schools

Jamie Lee Hamann has a degree in molecular biology, and he also enjoys writing articles about various subjects.

While corporations are finding a marketplace within schools, the primary purpose of schools is education, and the influence of commercialism directly impacts educational values and curriculum.

While corporations are finding a marketplace within schools, the primary purpose of schools is education, and the influence of commercialism directly impacts educational values and curriculum.

NEA Findings on Commercial Advertising in Schools

All the way back in 1929, the United States government expressed growing concern about commercialism in our schools. The National Education Association, or NEA, formed a committee to evaluate the dangers of commercialism based on three worries.

  1. Each district must depend on its own resources to determine the educational value.
  2. The principle of democratic control of the curriculum was being jeopardized.
  3. Advertising was a distraction from already crowded course content (Molnar, R.,2002).

The results of the NEA committee led to the formation of the Commercialism in Education Research Unit (CERU) and the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education (CACE). These two units began to collect data and are still collecting data today. This data has shown significantly high increases in commercialism in our schools, the success of many commercial programs in our public schools, and a huge monetary gain from advertising to children.

Rises Recorded by Initial Research

Molnar and Reaves (2002) analyzed data compiled from CERU and CACE at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to determine whether or not a significant rise had occurred between 1990 and 2001 (Molnar, 2002).

All data was obtained through previous bibliometric analysis by CERU and CACE of citations taken from four different areas of literature: The popular press, education press, business press, and advertising/marketing press (Molnar, 2002).

The authors included appendices of each database strategy and search restrictions to ensure repeatability (Molnar, 2002).

CERU identified eight activities in schools for quantitative analysis. The eight categories included sponsorship, exclusive agreements, incentive programs, appropriation of space, sponsored educational material, electronic marketing, privatization, and fundraising (Molnar, 2002). CERU collected the number of citations for commercialization activities found within these eight categories from 1990 through 2001 (Molnar, 2002). They used the quantified calculations of “media hits” to highlight trends for further quantitative analysis (Molnar, 2002).

In August of 1998, CACE saw a 154% increase in commercialization mostly in sponsorship activities and exclusive agreements (Molnar, 2002). Between 1997 and 1999 there was an 11% increase mostly in privatization, electronic marketing, exclusive agreements, and incentive programs (Molnar, 2002).

In 2000 there was a 395% increase in all eight categories, but mostly due to privatization (Molnar, 2002). Overall, CACE saw a 473% increase from 1990 to 2001, the most prevalent being privatization, followed by the allocation of school space, bulletin boards, and textbooks with company logos and branding messages (Molnar, 2002).

A Dramatic Upswing

Our country seems to be seeing a dramatic upswing in commercial activities in schools that began in the 1980s and is continuing today.

Along with this dramatic upswing, there is also an emerging trend where marketers attempt to bundle together advertising and marketing using many different types of media. This effort of securing more and more marketing plans for our schools needs to be closely watched. One of the effects could be our children beginning to define their lives through consumption and not creativity and community participation. There is no end in sight simply because in the advertising world's eyes, schools are one of the last frontiers.

McDonald's logo

McDonald's logo

McDonald's at Fleming Elementary School

An obvious example of successful appropriation of the space is the implementation of a Mini-McDonald's in Fleming Elementary School in Detroit Michigan. The Mini-McDonald's rewards student performance with meal points and allows the students to apply for employment (Molnar, 2000). But appropriation of space can be a little more hidden than the Mini-McDonald's at Fleming Elementary.

Channel One

Channel One is a program that was founded by Chris Whittle in 1989 and was sold to Primedia (Brighouse, 2005).

The Channel one program exchanges the use of television and technology for the airing of 12-minute broadcasts during the school day. The broadcast contains current events and special interest programming along with commercials.

Harry Brighouse (2005) began a cost-benefit analysis of the program and came to a few conclusions.

  • The children seemed to retain the advertising information over all the other information.
  • Some studies show that children only retained Channel One’s block of programming when a well-planned lesson was presented by the teacher following the broadcast (Brighouse, 2005).

The advertising industry had succeeded with the implementation of Channel One. Chris Whittle and Primedia recognize that the program is not meant to create an educative moment but only begin an association with logos. Advertising knows that the truth or facts do not matter and association is the key to success.

Gathering Data

Molnar (2002) stated that social scientists in the past would gather data on certain human behavior patterns to initiate change while today they gather this data to be used by salespeople to manipulate the consumer.

This gathering of data is occurring in our schools. Education Market Resources (EMR) conducts more than 85% of its research in the classroom during school hours. Not too long ago Toys-R-Us administered the “Great American Toy Test” to students in Kansas.

These successful examples are only a few cases in the vast amount of data being obtained from our children every day. Privatization is the highest-growing commercial activity in the last twelve years (Molnar, 2000).


Privatization can be defined as a public school being bought by a for-profit enterprise or the curriculum of a public school being owned by a for-profit enterprise. Privatization puts the choices of our children’s education into the hands of stockholders (Molnar, 2002).

Currently, more than thirty states have Charter School laws that allow a for-profit company to be a charter holder or be hired by a charter holder to manage schools (Molnar, 2000). Sponsorship is when corporations pay for school events, activities, or scholarships for the right to associate their names with a good cause. This allows for a brand to become recognized in important market segments that could be hard to reach. This goes beyond events, activities, or scholarships and is seen directly in the classroom, on playgrounds, and around athletic fields.

There is no escaping slogans or logos and each advertisement reaches a large captive, impressionable audience. Corporations and trade associations, Primedia and Channel One, for example, continue to supply schools with materials and curricula that offer educational content with advertising.

Dell Computers knows that by having their Logo on computers in school that they are habituating our children to use their software throughout their lives rather than alternatives (Molnar, 2002).

Ford Motors and Time created TIME for Kids magazine that was distributed in the classroom with the idea that it would be taken home and spread to a wider audience (Molnar, 2000).

Edison Schools created Edeals, in 2000, which prepackaged curriculum for profit from a burgeoning school management industry (Molnar, 2000).

Some questions arose about self-interest when Master Card International tried to implement their “money management skills” course in certain school districts but mostly no one asks questions.

Brand Preferences

For many years, companies understood that creating brand preferences or strong brand impressions for children would create the consumption of their product for the rest of the child’s life (Cassim, 2011).

With the promise of a lifetime of consumption of one product comes a great opportunity to obtain wealth. The average American views two million television commercials before the age of sixty-five. So much advertising is being viewed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year that it is impossible to remove commercial activities from any moment of our lives (Colon, 2011).

With this relentless bombardment of miseducation based on association and not facts our society runs the risk of becoming less democratic (Colon, 2011). This concern is shadowed by the fact that children and youth collectively represent one of the most powerful demographic of not only America but the world (Cassim, 2011).

Based on forty-two countries under review by Euromonitor International, 95% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product sales are from children’s goods (Cassim, 2011). Boyles (2011) expresses concern that if our understanding of teaching and learning is based primarily on fiscal decisions and money-making, we will look at the world through the lens of mental mercantilism.

Mental mercantilism is a reductionist utilitarianism that forces us to understand the world as commodities and fiscal realities. Our country may already be at this point where our students don’t even mind being used and wouldn’t mind using themselves as a form of sponsorship.

Does Commercialism Interfere With Education?

While corporations are finding a marketplace within schools, the primary purpose of schools is education and the influence of commercialism directly impacts educational values and curriculum.

There are many who question advertising to our children in schools. Some say that advertising to our children is a kind of immoral war waged for adult profits, and others say that when schools involve themselves in this war the immorality is compounded.

But the truth remains that our culture views individual success on what we buy. Reisman has titled our culture the "culture of the lonely crowd" where we define ourselves by our possessions and express ourselves by looking, smelling, and thinking like everyone else.

Should more schools take responsibility for commercial activities and does this explosion of commercialism prevent the schools from fulfilling their primary purpose (education)?


  • Boyles, D. (2011). Considering the roles for AESA: An argument against Commercialism, Reductionism, and the quest for certainty. Educational Studies, 47(3), 217-239.
  • Brighouse, H. (2005). Channel One, the Anti-Commercial Principle, and the Discontinuous Ethos. Educational Policy, 19(3), 528-549.
  • Cassim, S., & McIntosh K. (2011). In-school marketing in South African primary Schools: An exploratory study. South African Journal of Business Management, 42(1). 55-63.
  • Molnar A. (2000). Colonizing our future: The commercial transformation of America’s schools. Social Education, 64(7), 428-438. Retrieved from
  • Molnar A., & Morales J. (2000). Commercialism@schools. Educational Leadership, 58(2), 3 9-44. Molnar A., & Reaves J.A. (2001). Buy Me! Buy Me! Educational Leadership, 59(2), 74-80.
  • Molnar, R., & Reaves, J.A (2002) The growth of schoolhouse commercialism and the Assault on educative experience. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 1(18), 17-55.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.