Marketing to children through schools raises trivial sums yet does great damage, says Harry Brighouse
While we in the UK are considering a ban on junk food advertising, some 8 million children in the United States are forced to watch such advertisements every school day. They are the "lucky" kids who attend schools that carry Channel One, a news-for-schoolchildren channel with a difference. The schools in question receive free state-of-the-art television and video equipment in return for ensuring that all their students watch a daily 12-minute broadcast. Channel One pays for the equipment by selling two minutes of that broadcast to advertisers.
The news content compares favourably with the local news broadcasts teenagers are most likely to watch at home. If they pay attention (and it is hard not to, as the volume cannot be adjusted during the broadcast), the students can glean superficial knowledge of national political affairs.
Each day it contains a five-minute segment focusing on one serious story, something that is rare enough in the national news.
But the advertisements are for junk food, clothing, teen-oriented movies and music and other teen products. And studies of the effects of the channel show that children forget the news content, but retain the commercial information.
Why would a responsible adult force children to watch commercials during lesson time? The news content is not brilliant, and there are alternatives, such as having children read newspapers.
Channel One is a classic case of school administrators being caught in a false dilemma. Channel One tends to be found in schools with lower-income populations. The administrators argue that with increasing pressure on funds they are right to seek private resources any way they can. Most children are saturated with commercial messages anyway and two extra minutes a day won't make a difference.
The argument is problematic. One problem concerns the substitution effect.
As schools are known to draw on private funds, pressure builds to diminish public funding, and the public probably magnifies the value of private income.
My daughter's previous school participates in a scheme run by a major breakfast cereal manufacturer. This involves displaying a large poster for sugary cereals, which every child walks past at least once a day, and it yields about $400 a year. But when I quiz other parents, they guess an average of $2,000. The equipment Channel One provides is worth about $4 per child per annum. Most schools operating the deal receive more than $7,000 per child from the Government. Four dollars is peanuts.
A third problem is that the advertisements do make a difference. The US economist Juliet Schor has recently shown that watching commercial television causes harm such as obesity and anxiety and affects relationships with parents. Even for children who watch a lot of it, watching more makes matters worse.
But the most serious problem is that the administrators display, in making the deal, a mistake about the mission of the school. School should supplement the academic and cultural opportunities provided to children by their home environments and the mainstream culture. So the deal is a violation of the purpose of the school. The ads reinforce the commercial influences to which children are subject during their out-of-school lives.
The school needs to develop an ethos somewhat out of line with that of the mainstream culture, rather than one that reinforces it, and the administrator who sells out students so cheaply has misunderstood his or her mission.
There is an upside. Channel One has triggered a wonderful left-right coalition opposing it. Right-wing Christians such as Phyllis Schlafley and left-wing activists such as Ralph Nader work together to stop what they see as the commodification of childhood.
If liberals want to reclaim a reputation for caring about moral values and interfere with the right's hold on evangelical voters, marketing to children is an ideal place to start.
Harry Brighouse is professor of philosophy and affiliate professor of education policy studies at Wisconsin University in Madison.