In Torontoist vs. Torontoist, two Torontoist staffers face off to debate an issue important to our city—and you’re invited, in the comments section, too.
Illustration by Jeremy Kai/Torontoist.
In an August 4 radio interview with the Fan 590, Rob Ford suggested companies could use gym floors and walls in public schools as advertising space, and so, once again, the debate over placing ads in front of students where they can’t avoid them is in the news. But is the idea worthy of more serious consideration in economic times like these, when governments (and school boards) are feverishly looking for ways to balance their books? Or is advertising in schools really just selling our kids’ minds to the highest bidder? Torontoist debates the pros and cons.
Last week Mayor Rob Ford, with characteristic ox-amongst-the-Wedgewood grace, went on a radio show and opined that it might not be a bad idea to raise money for schools by placing advertising in school gyms.
It wasn’t the first time that the idea of commercializing schools had been raised, or, for that matter, attempted—in March of this year, the Toronto District School Board voted not to allow Onestop Media Group to expand a pilot program in Toronto high schools that saw student programming and advertising sharing time on in-hall monitors.
However, the mayor’s comment, hitting as it did the hot button trifecta of Toronto liberal alarmism—Rob Ford, talk radio, and corporate influence— provoked some elements of the local media into an unsurprising but unwarranted conniption.
The apparent issue with advertising in academia is that the branding of gym walls or school halls would have undue influence on our children, who would be lured from their hopscotch and hacky-sack to start mugging their classmates for cross-trainers. (Or something like that; some of the criticism is sufficiently self-involved that it assumes universal loathing for the idea and doesn’t bother to explain what the problem is.)
Some historical context: Money and power have always put their names on things. That’s why our summer months are named after Roman emperors, why Canadian streets memorialize British imperialists, why buildings in China bear the names of dead Communists. So it’s surprising, in these cash-strapped times, that we don’t see more celebration of the ruling corporate elites of our day—arguably more benign and less self-serving than any of the above—adorning the walls of our public institutions.
In any case, the HMCS Consumerism has long since left the dock with your kids on board. Today’s youth are surrounded by advertising; from billboards to mall video monitors to the iDevices that are socially mandatory for every citizen over the age of 10. Musicians routinely reference popular brands in their work, and corporate sponsorship has become a significant revenue stream for film and TV producers.
As a result, our Nike-ed and Dieseled-up kids are the most media-savvy generation since Gutenberg first printed flyers for his bratwurst shop in Mainz and unlikely to be swayed to new vice by a Pepsi banner over the scoreboard. Advertising has become part of the landscape; social white noise to be acknowledged or ignored, depending on mood and circumstance.
That’s not to suggest citizens both large and small aren’t influenced by advertising; after all, that’s what it’s designed to do. However, the ubiquity of commercial messaging, both harmless and noxious, means that filtering and understanding, not avoidance, are the tools we need to deal with it. If we really want to help kids, we’ll create programs to teach them critical thinking about advertising, a vastly more useful strategy than trying to yank logos off T-shirts (and incidentally, one recommended by the American Psychological Association Task Force on Advertising and Children).
It’s also important to be discriminating when deciding who gets to set up shop inside the ivy and how they do it; we probably shouldn’t be pitching Jose Cuervo to kids until at least middle school, and eight-foot-high 3D movie trailers would be distracting in a classroom setting. But approached judiciously (and with an eye to the real value of the transaction), advertising could be a useful way to pull in a few bucks for our impoverished school system.
You can’t really point to figures when arguing against allowing advertising in schools. After all, everyone agrees there’s a sizable amount of money to be made by doing it. The reason there’s a lot of money in it is because advertisers are willing to spend more money to advertise to what is essentially a captive audience that is more susceptible to their messages than average.
Because that’s what this is about, really. I could make all the usual “must we commercialize our public spaces” arguments that one might expect were I a staff writer for Spacing or that you might see here on this site at any time and probably have seen not infrequently over the last few years. Heck, I participated enthusiastically in Torontoist’s mockery of the idea of selling TTC naming rights. But schools aren’t really public spaces in the sense that TTC stations are. If you went into a school and just sort of hung around, people would give you weird looks and eventually you would probably be asked to leave.
That would result from our instinctive urge to protect children from threats. It’s the same urge that makes us feel uneasy about the idea of selling advertising space in schools. We know children are more easily infuenced by advertising than adults are! That’s why we’ve outlawed cigarette advertising in so many forms, hard liquor advertising in some more, why we strictly limit what may be advertised on shows specifically designated as children’s programming—and most everybody who studies child psychology will tell you that we’re too permissive when it comes to allowing advertising to children rather than too restrictive.
And even then, selling advertising space to schools is worse because schools aren’t television shows. TV shows are things kids watch for fun. They understand, at least, that when they’re watching TV that it’s recreational time (sad as it is to use that word in the context of watching TV). But school isn’t recreational, recess aside. “School”—and remember when you were a kid, and “school” meant the building and the teachers and the remote, forbidding principal—is the second biggest authority in children’s lives after their parents. Sometimes it’s the first. We cannot allow that to be tainted by advertising: it’s a subversion of everything we expect our schools to do, not the least of which is teach critical thinking skills.
And besides being stupid on the merits, it’s worth pointing out that this is another one of Rob Ford’s moneymaking ideas, and as such should be viewed in the context of a demagoguing idiot spitballing a truly stupid idea that he cannot implement. Rob Ford has next-to-no authority over school boards, which derive their funding from the province. This is just Rob Ford being Rob Ford, and that is not meant as a compliment.
Commercialization of the education experience is a very, very dangerous thing, all the more so when it’s early education, but that caveat shouldn’t be licence for people to say, “Well, we’ll just advertise in high schools, then.” Practically every educator, every childhood psychology expert, everybody who works with children in any way will tell you: advertising in schools is a terrible, terrible idea, precisely because it has the potential to be so effective. We should pay attention to them.