How Target is Infiltrating Public Schools to Build Customers for Life

"I want to be able to do my job without feeling subservient to corporate power," says this teacher-librarian.

Photo Credit: artzenter /

I am the teacher-librarian in one of two San Francisco school libraries remodeled by the big-box chain Target, in partnership with the Heart of America Foundation (HOA). HOA, which coordinates corporate volunteer programs focused on literacy, provides a few different options, including the one Target picked: the READesign® Library Makeover Program. On its website, HOA promises to handle all the details for the sponsoring partner, making the experience simple but meaningful: “As soon as we know your desired market, we do the rest.”

About 200 schools across the country have received a Target Library Makeover since 2007 and, judging by the photos available online, the libraries all look similar to the one at my school. Like those other libraries, The Story of Wal-Mart, The Story of Starbucks, and The Story of McDonald’s are shelved with the nonfiction as part of the donated corporate-themed Built for Success series for children. Our bright, cheery elementary school library does not have red and white bulls-eyes on the walls, however, unlike the Target-sponsored libraries I saw online. A visitor might not guess Target had anything to do with the remodeling, though the painted stripes on one wall look slightly big-box store-ish, if you ask me. The lack of Target logos in our library is no oversight; it is the result of tough battles fought at the district administrative level and a school district with an unusually firm anti-branding policy.

Not that the students weren’t branded.

On the second day of school that fall, as the Target School Library Makeover began, two famous NASCAR drivers arrived at my school with their Target-sponsored race car, fully covered in red and white bulls-eyes. A “reading assembly” was held for the entire school on the play yard (a customized kickoff event is one of the options HOA offers its corporate partners as part of the makeover program). The NASCAR celebrities read a picture book to the students and then posed for pictures with each class in front of the race car. Some school district administrators attended this assembly, along with a sea of red-shirted Target employee volunteers. The district official with the challenging job of upholding the anti-branding policy was also there, and he told us to flip over the 250 red Target stadium cushions for the children so that the bulls-eye logo faced down. It was a valiant effort but, in the midst of the red tents, the race car, the banners, the stage, and the many red Target shirts, having the cushions face down (for the few minutes they remained so) felt inconsequential.

This event was so exciting, fun, and out of the norm for the students that it clearly cemented a favorable impression of Target in their minds. Students talked and wrote about Target for the rest of the year. That first week of school, each child took home a bright red book bag with a giant bulls-eye on it—full of free books marked with Target stickers. There were free groceries for the families from the local food bank, distributed in red Target shopping bags. I overheard children begging their parents to take them to Target. One mother told me that her 1st grader had arrived home from school after the NASCAR event and announced, “The guy said they wanted you to buy stuff at Target!” Things that have power in the world leave an impression, especially on children. That red and white bulls-eye was a presence in our school for the entire year, even without being painted on the library walls.

Targetizing San Francisco

Our school had a library before Target moved into San Francisco, and it wasn’t the worst-looking library in the district. However, the school fit a certain profile and was selected from among several applications submitted by the school district to receive the $150,000 makeover. Our library was closed for the first three months of school as the space was cleared out and remodeled. This included fresh paint on the walls, colorful marmoleum flooring, pine bookshelves, new books, a big circulation desk, tables, chairs, beanbags, and 22 iPads in a mobile charging cart. The new library was ready at the end of October, and opened with much fanfare and hoopla. Why wasn’t the remodel scheduled for the summer months, when our school would be closed anyway? As the new librarian stepping in, I naïvely asked this question. That’s when I learned that the city of San Francisco was in the process of getting its first Target store—also scheduled to open in October. Not a coincidence.

Target has made its way into San Francisco, a famously difficult city for big-box stores and chain restaurants to open up shop. I have noticed Target sponsorship logos on announcements for many major city events: free concerts, family days at museums, children’s theater, and summer programming at the public libraries. Target appears to be “giving back to the community,” which may have been part of the deal. In the meantime, they opened up a second store in the city—and one more school was selected to receive a Target School Library Makeover, coinciding with that store’s grand opening. The problem is that the lines are blurry when it comes to giving back and advertising. And when it comes to anything that hints at advertising to children in public schools, and the related and bigger issues of corporate control in the public arena, I have strong opinions.

Years ago when I taught at a school in Beaverton, Oregon, my class was selected to be part of a new fitness “partnership” with Nike, and I had some resolute—and at points, unpopular—criticisms of that program (which I wrote about in a Rethinking Schools article, “My Year with Nike”). Nike blatantly promoted their products to my school’s 4th graders that year in a successful example of corporate branding. Similarly, Target’s implicit agenda of building a customer base in San Francisco is inappropriate inside a public school, among young children who are vulnerable and already overexposed to commercial media. The day of the opening ceremony, the library was decked out with Target banners. As children and their families were funneled through after school, one Target representative looked at me over the children’s heads and offhandedly remarked, “They’ll be Target shoppers forever now, you watch!”

Who Is Choosing Children’s Literature?

It’s not only the shameless advertising that I have a problem with. Two thousand new library books come as a package deal with the READesign® Library Makeover Program, a collection that is preselected by HOA. My predecessor, the credentialed and experienced teacher-librarian then at our school, was offered the opportunity to choose only about 200 of the titles. As a result, most of the books we received do not reflect the culture or home language of the majority of the school community. Teacher-librarians spend a lot of time reviewing and selecting the best possible books for their school libraries, generally high-quality and high-interest fiction and nonfiction that has been reviewed by professional journals, won literary awards, and matches the curriculum and mission of the school. The most effective libraries—like the most effective classrooms—do not use one-size-fits-all materials.

Eighty percent of the students at our bilingual school are Latina/o, yet only a handful of the books from the Target makeover came in Spanish. Most of the picture books are not high-quality literature, and very few of them depict people of color as major characters. A set of library books for parents also came with the makeover. A nice idea, perhaps, but almost every book portrays a smiling white man or white woman on the cover; titles include Mommy Millionaire, The Six-Day Financial Makeover, The Smart Cookies’ Guide to Making More Dough, and Simple Solutions for Families in the Fast Lane. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that many of the books Target gave our school community support a consumerist vision of the world. Most of these 200 parent books (with only a few in Spanish) are not only inappropriate, but also offensive in a school where more than 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and parents juggle multiple jobs to keep their families afloat in a city with the highest rents in the nation.

Although the teacher librarian’s input was considered to some degree during the initial planning process with Target and HOA, the omission of a librarian’s perspective and involvement during the makeover process was not only problematic, it was insulting. The nadir for me came the day of the opening ceremony, when someone arrived dressed up as the Target mascot—a white bull terrier named Bullseye—and sat for the duration of the Target-focused program in my (the teacher-librarian’s) new reading chair. A select group of 5th-grade students, those with their media release forms signed, sat on the carpet in front of the dog caricature. More than 150 Target volunteers and representatives, the 5th-grade teacher, the press, and those of us who are not classroom teachers watched a slideshow with sentimental music showing the Target Library Makeover process and the volunteers helping our school. Then the Target officials, the HOA co-founder, and the district superintendent all spoke. They cut the symbolic red ribbon and the principal said a few words. But the librarians who were there, including our supervising district librarian, sat at the edge of the room, unrecognized and unnoticed. Libraries need librarians, and it felt wrong—but not unexpected—to be completely excluded from the corporate-planned opening event for our newly remodeled Target library. As with the Nike experience in Beaverton, I was never asked by Target or HOA to evaluate the program or provide any feedback about the process. Nor was our district library office.

Makeover or Takeover?

Ultimately, when corporations appropriate aspects of our mission for their own purposes in the public schools, it diverts attention away from their advertising motive and leaves a misleading impression of magnanimity. In this era of underfunding for schools, it is easy to see how this happens. It is hard to refuse $150,000, no matter what strings are attached. My school, like most others, doesn’t have that kind of money lying around. Even if it did, chances are good that extra funds would not be put toward remodeling the library. But this is the catch: If solid, adequate, and long-term public funding for schools is not available, it sets up the opportunity for corporations to provide for schools instead, on their own terms, and in a disturbingly patronizing way. I cringe to think that I went along with giving Target the power to sit in my teacher’s chair, to choose the books for our library, to be such a large part of what children learned that year. Our school got a nice-looking library and a set of iPads, but at a cost with which I am not comfortable.

It is also hard for me to ignore the haunting irony of giant corporations that, in order to produce inexpensive products (purchased by low-income families like those in my school community), exploit workers overseas and in this country through non-living wages, anti-union policies, and sometimes dangerous working conditions. And then these same corporations “give back” to the low-income communities here in the United States, expecting—and often receiving—accolades.

According to figures from Target’s 2012 Annual Report (available online), what our school’s library makeover cost Target is roughly equal to the profit that rolls into that corporation every 30 minutes. For Target, this kind of “charity” project is a great deal—they get all the goodwill of helping the city, they enroll hundreds of new customers, and it costs them relatively nothing. Even if the financial power dynamics weren’t so outrageously unbalanced, struggling schools and big corporations have incompatible goals: Corporations strive to generate profits, schools strive to educate students. This makes a relationship between the two inherently problematic, and the financial inequality puts educators in a disadvantaged position. At one meeting I attended with Target representatives and school district officials, someone from Target exclaimed, “The San Francisco school district has finally been Targetized!”

I am proud to work in a school district with an anti-branding policy, and I appreciate the hard work that went into ensuring our library has no bulls-eyes on the walls or on books. But I see now that, although a policy gives people tools to work with, it does not in itself defend against corporate branding or corporate sway. The schools in San Francisco may be logo-free, but the influence Target had on our school community for the first year their new store was open is indisputable. In some ways, I think there may not have been any resistance to the Target School Library Makeover because of the policy. Other than some eye-rolling and a few side comments here and there, we all accepted the Trojan horse gift from Target because it felt relatively safe, and because it’s hard to challenge a gift when you don’t have everything you need.

Of course, this story is not just about Target. It is an example of what is happening to our public commons as a result of a broader, long-term assault. For me, the library makeover experience highlights the importance of ensuring stable funding for public schools so that educators and districts do not feel compelled to accept or rely on “gifts.” When corporate ideology infiltrates the curriculum, the culture, and the very architecture of public schools, it facilitates privatization and undermines democracy. I want to be able to do my job without feeling subservient to corporate power.

My son will start kindergarten soon, and for the first time I feel the weight of these issues as a teacher and as a parent. I want my son to come home from school telling me what he has learned about whales or poems or the water cycle, not about Target’s mascot Bullseye or where we should shop.

Rachel Cloues is a school librarian in San Francisco. Her articles are included in a number of Rethinking Schools books, including Rethinking Popular Culture and Media and Rethinking Elementary Education.

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