Pepsi is the Real Thing

Posted to DEOS-L, 04 February 2000. I've been watching the debate over the corporate sponsorship of education debate for a while now, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It hasn't, which concerns me, because the issue goes well beyond banner ads on university web pages or Nike labels on team uniforms.

Naomi Klein observes, with justification:

As with all branding projects, it is never enough to tag the schools with a few logos. Having gained a foothold, the brand managers are now doing what they have done in music, sports and journalism outside the schools: trying to overwhelm their host, to grab the spotlight. They are fighting for their brands to become not the add-on but the subject of education, not an elective but the core curriculum. - Naomi Klein, No Logo

Each little thing - an advertisement on a web page, a swoosh on an athlete's shoulder, a Coke-only policy in the cafeteria - seems innocent. But it is important to consider the cumulative effect of these little things.

I'm sure many of us are familiar with some of these incidents, all of which are collected by Klein. It is important to note not only the progression but also the underlying theme: the sponsor's control over the message, connecting it as closely to the core content as possible:

  • Channel One, which broadcasts into schools, prohibits teachers from lowering the volume during commercials

  • ZapMe, an in-school web browser, tracks students' browsing in order to send targeted advertisements

  • Cover Concepts places advertisng on prtective covers placed on textbooks by more than 30,000 schools

  • 20th Century fox renames the cafeteria menu items after characters from Anastasia in 40 elementary schools

  • McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut, SubWay and Taco Bell run in-school kiosks (which don't accept food coupons, and which prohibit regular school catefterias from selling 'competing' items)

  • Pepsi has many in-school arrangements, including one with South Fork High School (Florida) which requires that the school "make its best effort to maximize all sales opportunities for Pepsi-Cola products."

  • Nike produces an 'Air-to-Earth' educational kit in which the students are assigned the task of building a Nike sneaker "complete with swoosh and endorsement"

  • Channel One enlists 'partner' teachers to lead students as they create advertisements for Snapple or redesign Pepsi vending machines.

  • Other campaigns see students design advertisements for Starburst and Burget King

  • Students in Vancouver design two new product lines for White Sport restaurants

  • A high school in Georgia suspends a student for wearing a 'Pepsi' shirt during a school-sponsered 'Coke Day'

  • The University of Wisconsin signs a sponsorship agreement which requires that "the University will not issue any statement that disparages Reebok" and that it will take steps to address any remark made by university staff

  • The Universit of Kentuky signs a deal with Nike which terminates the $25 million gift if the "University disparages the Nike brand"

  • Amnesty International is denied routine funding by Kent State Students' Council because it criticizes Coca-Cola

  • Police are called to York University in Toronto to prevent people from handing out ant-smoking leaflets at a tennis tournament sponsored by cigarette company DuMaurier

  • After hearning from Boots, a pharmaceutical company, University of California administration blocks publication of Dr. Betty Dong's study comparing brand name and generics

  • Apotex, a drug company, pulls funding from a study and has the author demoted after she publishes a study critical of its drug in the New England Journal of Medicine

  • Bown's Dr. David Kern is prevented from publishing a report on deaths in a textile factory by a company citing "trade secrets"

This list of examples, while it runs the gamut from K-12 schools to university research, illustrates the idea that when sponsorship sets in, control and censorship soon follow.

Its should be pointed out moreover that a list such as this is the merest scratching of the surface; many more cases of corporate control and interference in teaching and research exist, most quietly handled in back rooms and board rooms.

I would like to think that universities and academic staff have the integrity to resist the demands of their coporate sponsors. But I know better, and it's not because they are weak or evil people, it's because it is almost impossible to challenge a large corporation and one's own institution at the same time.

There is a deepening crisis - not just in education but in society in general - whereby the messages we hear and even send are increasingly subject to censorship and scrutiny, not merely as to whether they are illegal or immoral, but also as to whether they offend Coke, Nike or AOL.


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