In an attempt to offset fiscal woes, Pennsylvania’s Pennsbury School District recently contracted to allow extensive advertising in its schools.  The district issued a press release in which it explained that:

Earlier this year, the Pennsbury School Board contracted with the firm School Media, Inc. to sell advertising that will be placed on walls and lockers in our school interiors.  This initiative was an outcome of the work of the Board Revenue Development Committee.  Ads will be screened . . . to include only advertising that is deemed appropriate for the school environment.  Over $400,000 in new revenues are anticipated from this initiative.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the ads—the district plans to install over 200—will be located on the walls, floors, lockers, and cafeteria tables of Pennsbury’s 16 primary, middle, and high schools.  What injects subtlety into Pennsbury’s story is the fact that the ads are not allowed to endorse products directly; rather, they must be connected with themes like health, safety, and learning.  Some of the ads have a didactic message, endorsing reading and discouraging the playing of video games.  Others, however, are less wholesome.  According to the Inquirer, Pennsbury will install adverts for the Post-it brand, as well as for Dick’s, the unfortunately named sporting goods chain.  The Post-it ads will promote “organization skills.”  Dick’s will be informing youngsters about the dangers of concussions.

Pennsbury’s plan appears to be a desperate reaction to financial turmoil, and it exemplifies a nationwide shift towards public schools’ reliance on advertising revenues.  The willingness of school districts to turn to advertising is not new, and Pennsbury’s initiative is by no means the most striking.  (In what may be a particularly tragicomic instance of the American Kafkaesque, a teacher in a cash-strapped Idaho high school struck a deal with a local pizza shop whereby every worksheet he would distribute to his students would feature the words: “Molto’s Pizza 14” 1 Topping Just $5.00.”  One can take comfort in the fact that $5.00 seems like a very reasonable price to pay for fourteen inches of pepperoni pie.)

The most obvious problem with placing ads in schools is that the practice will augment the already remarkable influence that corporations have on how young people understand their place in the world.  One needn’t read the literature on consumer behavior to see that, in the long term, routine exposure to advertising can mold the very foundations of a child’s thinking, transforming his understanding of what is and is not possible, and tailoring his conception of the meaning of a life well lived.  There’s also the equally palpable concern that, if even primary schools make a habit of turning to advertising, it’s not clear whether any public institution can be expected to resist the practice.

There are different ways to register the fact that Pennsbury’s ads are allowed to endorse products only indirectly.  One can contend that the ads’ obliqueness is salutary, that their allusions to health and learning will negate any deleterious effects.  But one can also take the view that there is something especially insidious about the fact that firms will be able to embed products and ideas in seemingly innocuous posters.  Wouldn’t it be more fair, the argument might go, if firms had to put all their cards on the table and promote their merchandise honestly, rather than being allowed to regale children with smoke and mirrors?  Of course, there is also the position—one hears it more frequently these days—that the real villains in places like Pennsbury are the school administrators who, having mismanaged their schools into financial oblivion, are now trying to auction their way out of insolvency.     

Political leanings will surely influence reactions to the story of Pennsbury.  But the underlying questions will remain, and we will need to ask ourselves whether we are willing to accept a culture in which (for whatever reason) private firms peddle their wares in public schools.  Part of the human dimension of Pennsbury’s story stems from the fact that the school district’s officials have been open about the unattractiveness of the advertising program.  Said one member of the Pennsbury Board of School Directors: “We say, ‘Show us another way, give us the funding some other way.’  We need the money desperately.”  Is this the voice of economic desolation?