When Marketing Masquerades as Philanthropy

The gym at the Alice Costello Elementary School in Brooklawn, N.J., is now called the ShopRite Center, after the supermarket chain. Football players at Vernon Hills High near Chicago now play at Rust-Oleum Field. Athletes at Everglades High in Broward County, Florida, play at Eastern Financial Stadium. If the public schools are meant to prepare our children for life, well…they may be doing that all too well. Today’s lesson? How to sell out to a market culture.

I find it immensely sad that school systems, in the name of education, are falling all over themselves to help corporate marketers shill to captive audiences of young people. Everyone piously claims to have the highest motives. School board members invariably point to budget shortfalls and the need for new classrooms and textbooks. Corporate sponsors hoist a halo over their heads and confess they just want to “give back to the community.” Everyone rushes to declare the sale of the public’s cultural space a fantastic “win-win” for everyone.

The truth, alas, is a bit more vulgar. In a cultural environment overrun with advertising, corporations are eager to find uncluttered milieus for their marketing. Kids are notorious averse to ads these days and hard to reach. And conventional media tend to be expensive. But the schools? Ah, what a bargain for anyone buying eyeballs! Schools offer a nearly virgin canvas for ads, an attractive demographic cohort in one location — and school boards desperate to strike a sweet deal.

Taxpayers who pay for public facilities might ask if the selling of naming rights is such a bargain. After all, a small-time donor gets to name the facility after itself — while taxpayers, who pay 90% or more of the costs, get shunted to the side. What a deal.

Companies who give to the public schools like to wax eloquent about their civic-mindedness, their concern for the future, and blah, blah. But let’s get one thing straight: this isn’t philanthropy. It’s tax-deductible marketing and image polishing. No one’s stopping these companies from making straight-up gifts.

School boards are not known for being a courageous bunch. It’s no surprise that many of them would rather short-change taxpayers on their investments than say no to a corporation offering “free” money. That’s clearly what has motivated the Seminole County board in Florida, which is declaring its facilities for sale. As the Orlando Sentinel reports (September 23, 2005): “School names are worth money these days, and Seminole County is itching to cash in. A new policy that the School Board is set to adopt this month puts names of school buildings on the market — if the price is right.”

This is a classic stage in the enclosure of the commons. Companies are only too eager to exploit the public sector’s financial desperation and acquire something that shouldn’t be for sale in the first place. The excuses made by public officials go along the lines of “But it’s only a name,” and “It’s only a small ad,” and “We’ll be sure that it’s tasteful and family-friendly.”

I say that selling one’s identity — one’s name — is a fairly extreme measure. After you cross that line, other moral compromises are downright easy to make. Kids understand this. We should celebrate real gifts, but it’s time to start stigmatizing those companies that exploit the public schools for their own marketing purposes.