Marketing Wars Enter Schoolyard

Contracts cut by Coke and Nike stir ethical concerns about commerce on campus

When students at Westlake High School in Austin get thirsty this fall, they'll be able to buy a Coke from vending machines in the cafeterias and hallways. Not a Pepsi or Snapple. Only a beverage made by Coca-Cola.

The exclusive presence of Coke products is the result of a lucrative deal the big soft-drink maker cut with the school district. Under the plan, schools in the district are getting $350,000 in "up front" money and a percentage of all sales. Coke gets to be the "real thing" - the only thing - in every public school in the district.

The contract represents the latest twist in the growing - and controversial - trend of commercialization on high school campuses. In recent years, corporations have been paying districts to display their logos on scoreboards, in gyms, and on campus billboards. A few districts allow advertising on school buses.

Now, however, some companies are cutting long-term deals that give them exclusive access to public schools. For districts, the contracts bring needed cash. But critics say the moves are sullying the pursuit of learning with the pursuit of the bottom line.

It is "an erosion in our culture between what is public and what is private," says Alex Molnar, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. "It represents a subversion of the idea that the school is for the public welfare."

For many school administrators, the money offered by corporate sponsors is too attractive to ignore:

* Westlake is just one of a half dozen Texas school districts that has recently signed multimillion dollar deals with soft-drink makers that allow the companies to have exclusive access to their campuses. District officials here are using part of the money to build a new softball field.

* Last year, Nike paid St. Patrick's High School, a basketball powerhouse in New Jersey, $20,000 to switch from Adidas to Nike.

* The Bozeman School District in Bozeman, Mont., will receive about $120,000 from Pepsi during the next four years for changing from Coke.

* The Clear Creek Independent School District near Houston recently signed a contract with Coca-Cola giving it vending rights to the district's 29 campuses.

Rick Gay, an assistant superintendent at Clear Creek, explains that the district will get $180,000 every year from Coke. In return, Coke gets to sell its products to Clear Creek's 28,000 students.

"The rationale for what we wanted to do was to get money so kids would have more time for academics and not have to be doing bake sales and car washes all the time to raise money," he says.

Ron Lynch, the athletic director at Alvin High School, sees the same advantages. The Alvin Independent School District in Alvin, Texas, also recently signed a deal with Coke and is now negotiating a shoe contract with Reebok. Mr. Lynch says, "if it's happening in the pros and colleges, it's eventually going to work down to the high schools."

Impact on the schools

Which is exactly what worries some people. Charlotte Baecher, director of education services at Consumers Union, says commercializing schools "compromises what schools are all about. I'm aware that schools are in desperate financial straits, but you have to weigh the negative impacts on the students. This really is a very poor direction for schools to be going in."

Others argue that corporate motives and education motives don't mix. Tamara Schwarz, program coordinator at the Oakland-based Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, says companies "are claiming to be concerned about education, when in reality, this is just marketing."

Ms. Schwarz adds that studies have shown schoolchildren often don't distinguish between what is an advertisement and what is not. She says when students see products advertised in school, they frequently think, "It must be something the school is endorsing."

Shoe companies have been among the most aggressive promoters marketers on school campuses. Nike, for instance, has sponsored high school basketball programs since 1984 and currently has exclusive shoe deals with more than 100 schools. The company defends its activities as providing a service.

"Just like IBM and Apple, which give computers and software to schools, we donate equipment to high school basketball programs," says Nike Spokesman Lee Weinstein. "We are trying to stay in touch with the game at the grass-roots level."

Adidas, whose sales have long lagged behind Nike's, is also turning more attentively to high schools, where kids can form life-long attachments to shoes. "The grass roots is where Adidas has started paying a lot of attention in the last three or four years," says Chris Persinger, a company spokesman.

Like Nike, Adidas donates its products to elite high school sports teams and both Nike and Adidas also work extensively through local dealers who sell discounted shoes to schools. Adidas recently completed deals with eight Oklahoma high schools that have agreed to wear Adidas shoes, socks, T-shirts and other apparel.

Tom Ballenger, the athletic director at Bishop Kelley, one of the schools that signed with Adidas, explains that his school will get a 30 percent discount on all Adidas products.

In addition, the school will receive an 8 percent rebate if it buys other equipment - like benches, bleachers or water coolers - through Adidas.

Mr. Ballenger expresses some misgivings about the trend toward shoe deals for high schools, saying "our kids are so brand conscious it's unbelievable." But he says his students will be wearing athletic logos in one form or another anyway. "Even though we don't like it that much, we are getting such a good deal that it outweighs the commercialization issue."

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