Cash-strapped schools have long been the target of advertisers, and no wonder. Estimates on teen spending range from $24 billion to more than $140 billion in direct sales.

Even more significantly, teens influence nearly $500 billion in sales when their parents’ spending is taken into account, while elementary kids’ desires chip in another $15 billion.

Teens also represent a hard-to-reach audience that hasn’t firmed up its preferences—valued at more than $100,000 for a lifetime customer—for toothpaste, shampoo, cars, refrigerators, catsup, candy bars, soft drinks, and other brand items.

In other words, if brand identity is the Holy Grail of advertising, the teen market is the Promised Land.

Now bolster this bottom-line reality with the exploding eCommerce boom and you might understand why so many companies are inundating schools with “free offers” for web content, software, servers, portals, and web site construction.

Not only can you help advertisers reach a captive audience—keep in mind that teens spend more time in school than watching television—but you can also help them build sophisticated databases that track consumer behavior.

While Channel One brags that “we have the undivided attention of millions of teen-agers for 12 minutes a day,” what are the students viewing? Channel One’s fact books says 42 percent of its daily classroom broadcasts are ads and filler. That’s scary, when you consider that Channel One has a daily teen audience comparable with that of the Super Bowl.

Suddenly, corporate America’s renewed interest in education and school web sites make business sense—for advertisers and marketers. But what’s in it for the kids?

With the average child viewing 20,000 to 40,000 commercials each year, do we really need to sacrifice precious time for learning to more advertising? Just how much is that corporate logo or flashing banner ad on your home page worth?

My sense is that while big school contracts with vendors and companies make headlines—New York City’s school bus ads and Colorado Springs’ multimillion-dollar Coke contract come to mind—most schools give more than they get.

Proponents point to increased revenue, better equipment, teacher-friendly software for grading and parent communication, free eMail accounts, easy-to-use web page design, kid- and family-friendly graphics, and access to more and better content.

Critics caution that schools expose a captive audience to advertising they can’t escape—often without parental permission—while sacrificing security measures, student and teacher privacy, and control of web-based content.

Corporate content—the goal of most in-school marketing programs—is particularly problematic. Talk about the proverbial “fox in the hen house” conundrum: candy companies “teaching” about exercise; school lunch menus promoting fast food; beer distributors “educating” about responsible drinking; and “science” courses designed by soft drink vendors, complete with bottling plant tours.

For small school systems lacking technology dollars and expertise, educator-endorsed companies like FamilyEducation Network or Copernicus might represent a legitimate choice for building and maintaining an internet presence.

But school officials should proceed with caution—and should get the endorsement of the district’s administration, legal team, parents, and teachers before proceeding. Know clearly what you’re getting and what you’re giving up.

While some FamilyEducation Network content is appealing, I find the constant “go shopping” messages and animated banner ads across the top of the page disconcerting. Somehow, spending my way to educational excellence at J.C. Penney, Barnes and Noble, Lands End, and Toys R Us wasn’t the type of meaningful involvement or communication I had envisioned.

And, if generating revenue is the goal, then an old-fashioned direct-mail campaign aimed at generating individual donations from parents, alumni, and community partners would probably generate more revenue and build better public relations than the site’s “Schoolcash.com” program.

Remember, web site marketers aren’t stupid. They also have a lot of money to spend for consumer research, copywriting, and graphic design.

Thus, the spaces you give up for advertising are typically where the eye goes to first on a web page—across the top or to the right. And, since creative directors know that color sells, your staid, static script messages on the new math curriculum and the PTA open house are now competing with four-color logos, award-winning advertising copy, animated art, and powerful photography.

Free? Hardly. This isn’t philanthropy, folks, this is business. Nor is it a school-business partnership, at least as defined by the National Parent-Teacher Association’s “Guidelines for Corporate Involvement in the Schools.” Profit is the bottom line.

Sadly, since the trend seems to be that more of us are going to hop on the corporate marketing bandwagon, we all better get a lot smarter about how, when, why, and for how much we sell our schools.

Like it or not, a great deal of precedent has been set already via school vending contracts, athletic field sponsorships, school bulletin boards, and the like.

Textbooks, textbook covers, curriculum materials, scoreboards, lunch menus, incentive programs (such as Pizza Hut’s “Book It!” reading program), cable and “instructional” television, and even school announcements all are fodder for advertisers. (See the School Tour on the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education’s web site.) Restricting advertising on the web may be like trying to close the barn door after the animals have escaped.

Before you begin negotiating or rewriting district policy, you need to find out what contracts exist, who negotiated them, what the revenue streams are, and how the money is spent.

You might find you could get greater leverage by negotiating system-wide, rather than school-by-school or department-by-department. While technology coordinators, principals, coaches, and department chairs might be thrilled with the deals they have, chances are they—or you—are selling your schools short.

School districts and universities across the country are banding together to form networks for negotiating better contracts with for-profit companies. Consider joining or starting one in your area; typically, the combined buying power yields better results for everyone.

At the very least, add some non-educators to your team. Look for people with solid experience in contract negotiation who don’t represent industries or particular vendors, and have your contract reviewed by an outside agent.

Given chronic funding shortages and the growing purchasing power of the youth market, educational entrepreneurism—some say selling out—is probably here to stay. When it comes to corporate advertising, however, educators would be wise to remember the old axiom, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

“Guidelines for Corporate Involvement in the Schools” (National PTA)

http://www.pta.org/programs/guidelines1.htm

“Just the Facts about Advertising and Marketing to Children” (Center for a New American Dream)

http://www.newdream.org/campaign/kids/facts .html

Center for Commercial-Free Public Education

http://www.commercialfree.org