Corporate Ads In Our Schools

by Steve, September 25th, 2007

schoolsThere will be a very public new corporate presence at our Portland Public Schools soon, when the Trail Blazers install their new perpetual ads in ten of our gymnasiums. Each gym will have two Blazers logos on the floor, and a banner with their logo and the words “Make it Better.” All this for a $600,000 refinishing job on the floors.

In a certain sense, I can see why people have a hard time arguing against this, since they’re a basketball team, after all. But when you come to understand that district policy has been changed to allow this kind of corporate branding in all of our athletic facilities (used to be just tracks and fields) at all schools (used to just be high schools), you might start to detect a slippery slope.

You may see some Nike corporate “recognition opportunities” at your neighborhood elementary school soon.

The folks at the Coalition for Commercial-Free Schools (CCFS) saw this coming, and three representatives came out to offer their public testimony before the business agenda, including this policy change, was approved last night at the school board meeting.

Public health advocate Kari McFarlan, from Community Health Partnerships: Oregon’s Public Health Institute, described these types of deals as “strategic corporate initiatives to sell products to our kids and create brand loyalty at an early age.”

Rick Seifert, from Media Think, came next and gave the board a lesson in media literacy (Rick posted his remarks on his Red Electric blog).

Finally, Sara Leverette, coordinator for Coalition for Commercial-Free schools, described the resolution as a “disturbing precedent,” and challenged the board to do what the community would want. She asked, would we want logos on textbooks? Chalkboards?

David Wynde took issue with the slippery slope argument, and noted that the resolution being voted on would not allow such ads to be placed on textbooks or chalkboards. But I think it’s fair to ask: How far is the community willing to let this go?

We should be willing to discuss upper limits on such activity, especially as we vote to expand existing limits.

Dan Ryan was more conciliatory, and virtually apologized for supporting and voting for the deal. “Disinvestment in education in general, but specifically in athletics has been catastrophic… to this school district over the years,” he said, and noted the “extreme difference” between PPS athletic facilities and those of suburban districts.

The reasons to suspect this expansion of policy as a slippery slope are all around us historically at PPS.

One personal example is the playground installed in 2005 at Beach Elementary in North Portland. If you visited, you would see two large, modern red and blue play structures, with a wide range of activities. If you had seen the broken-down piece of crap that was there before, you’d be especially impressed. As you examined these structures, you’d come across a tall, free-standing sign at the corner of the biggest one. “Playground Donated by Allstate Foundation, ” says this sign, complete with the corporate “good hands” logo.

You’d have every reason to believe that Allstate came and built these structures, but you’d be wrong. The playground drive at Beach started with a couple thousand dollars of private donations from parents and businesses, and from PTA Entertainment book sales. The small fund also got a relatively big shot in the arm from an $8,600 City of Portland Bureau of Housing and Urban Development grant (that’s tax money, folks!) written by the lovely and sometimes contentious Wacky Mommy.

Then Allstate came in and blessed the school with a $70,000 grant to purchase the playground equipment, and, most importantly to them, a perpetual ad on the Beach playground. The equipment was installed by community labor.

So, looking at this beautiful playground, and reading this sign, you’d be forgiven for feeling a bit betrayed if you’d contributed your own money, time, and/or sweat to buying and building the structures, to see Allstate taking all the credit. In perpetuity. Subsidized by parents, local businesses and your tax money.

Funny, somehow the letters spelling “Allstate” and the corporate logo keep getting scratched off.

Make no mistake, I’m all for taking money from corporate (and corporate foundation) donors. But I like Rick Seifert’s test. We accept and deeply appreciate the money to refurbish these floors, we offer thanks publicly and will put up small, unobtrusive plaques in each gym to acknowledge the gift. The plaques come down when it is time to refurbish again. Would they give their money freely on this condition?

Update, 9/26: I left out an important element of this story when I wrote it last night. While the CCFS specifically called for rejecting this expansion of corporate branding Monday night, they’ve been calling for a general district policy for quite a while. The coalition was founded in 2005 “with one goal in mind: adoption by PPS of a strong, comprehensive policy on advertising and commercial activities,” according to a letter they sent (84KB PDF) in April of this year to then-superintendent Vicki Phillips.

The coalition has an impressive list of sponsors, including the Portland Council PTA, Community Health Partnership, Stand for Children, Rethinking Schools and the Northwest Earth Institute. Their efforts to persuade PPS to institute an advertising policy is endorsed by a much longer list of organizations and individuals, including the Portland Association of Teachers, City Commissioner Dan Salzman, State Senator Ginny Burdick, State Representatives Mary Nolan and Carolyn Tomei, former school board members, various health advocacy groups, and many more.

The current policy of leaving these corporate branding opportunities to the discretion of the superintendent is inadequate. We need a comprehensive policy, like other progressive school districts have.

I noticed there was some coverage of this issue by Lisa Grace Lednicer in the Oregonian this morning.

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