School for sale

Imagine the scene: It's four years and $100,000 since your firstborn headed off to college. You head to his graduation, settle in to hear wisdom appropriate to the occasion – and find yourself staring down a large sign overhead telling you it's time for a particular brand of beer.

In an era when everything from cars to toothpaste comes with a logo and a lifestyle, it's hard to get around advertising. Still, many parents depend on gatekeepers like schools to temper the daily barrage aimed at kids – a group known for soaking up everything marketers have to offer.

Increasingly, though, it's hard to claim that schools are ad-free zones. A few years ago, it was Channel One TV – 10 minutes of news, 2 minutes of acne-cream and soda pitches – that raised hackles. Then it was product placement in textbooks and soda machines in the halls. Just last week, New York schools chancellor Harold Levy urged that ads be permitted on school grounds – a proposal he later withdrew. At the same time, Massachusetts moved closer to allowing ads on schoolbuses.

The pattern is the same: outrage, then accommodation. And the bar just keeps moving lower. Public schools and colleges offer a defense of budgets that spike and collapse, a country that doesn't fund education equitably. What's left but to sell access to K-16 goldmines?

On some college campuses, alcohol ads and offers are coming under greater scrutiny for the role they may play in sustaining high rates of binge drinking and encouraging sometimes-lethal behavior. (See story, right.) Companies argue their ads are just aimed at building brand loyalty. But ads sell image and experience. Schools shouldn't be surprised when students take the messages to heart – sometimes excessively.

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