Commercial Invaders: ZapME Goes Under

ClassroomIt is a generally accepted, though not always successfully executed principle, that schools should be safe places for children and young adults. Increasingly, attempts to achieve this goal of safety often even include requiring that school building entrances be equipped with metal detectors to screens for guns, knives and other potential weapons. A far cry from the cozy one-room schoolhouses that even some of our parents remember. But is violence the only threat to students these days? The Center for Commercial Free Public Education (or "Unplug") in Oakland, CA is at the helm of a nationwide initiative to draw attention to another hazard invading schools: commercialism.

Unplug's initiative has blown the whistle on a number of forms of commercial marketing that have appeared in grade schools and high schools in recent years. One of the most recent being ZapME, an Internet Service Provider that claimed to help all kids cross the "digital divide." ZapME offered free computers, Internet access and technical support to schools, with the requirement that at least 15 students be online for four hours each day. The draw for schools was simple ZapME offered sorely needed, and very expensive, technology for free! But, the Internet browser ZapME offered (the only one accessible by ZapME-provided computers) came complete with a special ZapME advertising banner, featuring their sponsors, which include Nike, the US Army, and various soda manufacturers.

ZapME billed itself as "America's largest Internet media network specializing in education and offering the latest technology tools and educational resources to middle and high schools across the country." But groups like Unplug and Commercial Alert aren't so sure that the free equipment and Internet access is a fair trade for free and unlimited advertising space and time targeted at youth. And not only are companies like ZapME and their sponsors able to advertise to young people, they are also able to take detailed demographics on students, asking them to fill out profiles with gender, age and zip codes. They then make even more money, selling this information to other interested parties, which, according to Unplug, include the Department of Defense.

The outcry against commercialism in schools is great, and it's growing. A number of unions like the American Federation of Teachers have gotten involved in the fight, along with the National Parent Teacher Association, and even some notable politicians. Most importantly, kids themselves are getting involved, forming and joining their own coalitions. As a result of all this pressure, advertisers have begun to get the idea that advertising in schools may do their companies more harm than good.

As Dylan Bernstein, the Senior Program Director of Unplug says, "ZapME really exposed the myth that commercialism in schools will save education. It won't. As soon as the companies financial situations are threatened, it becomes clear that they all put profits ahead of kids." Sponsors have pulled out of ZapME in such large numbers that the company has essentially folded. In October of 2000, ZapME sold 51% of its stock to Gilat Satelite Networks Ltd., a company that will use ZapME's resources for new business-to-business marketing strategies, turning the focus of the new conglomerate away from schools.

"The Internet browser ZapME offered (the only one accessible by ZapME-provided computers) came complete with a special ZapME advertising banner, featuring their sponsors, which include Nike, the US Army, and various soda manufacturers."
By November, ZapME, having lost a great deal of sponsorship, was asking that schools pay for the service they had originally offered for free, or that they return their computers. As the source of their problems, ZapME cited the growing climate against advertising in schools and the inability of the company to sign enough schools to please potential investors. They should have known: in the companys SEC filings it is noted openly that, from the start, possible setbacks to the monetary goals of ZapME included the impressive legislation passed by states like California, requiring that public hearings be held to evaluate companies like ZapME before they are contracted with. The laws also mandate that parents have the option to not allow their children to participate in the programs.

Advertisers have known for a long time that brand loyalty can be most effectively instilled in very young ages. In the 1950s, for example, cigarette distributors worked in cooperation with school administrators to determine which children would be receptive to what kinds of advertising. Channel One was the first company in this new technological era to recognize that students, required by law to be in school, are a prime "captive audience" during the school day. Channel One began a program of "loaning" television equipment to schools, in exchange for a contractual agreement that students would be required to watch 12 minutes of Channel One programming each week with two of those twelve minutes being commercial air time.

Channel One presents themselves as "a learning community of 12,000 American middle, junior, and high schools, representing over eight million students and 400,000 educators." According to the company, their program is designed to bring "breaking news and in-depth issues" to students in a way that they can relate to. But a study in 1997, conducted by researchers at Vassar College, Johns Hopkins University and the Center for Media Education found that only 20% Channel Ones programming offers actual news content. An article in February 12ths American Prospect, in which kids were quizzed after watching Channel One, shows that students are retaining very little news and quite a lot of advertising.

For Bernstein, "the content of the infotainment is less at issue than the fact that two of those twelve minutes are filled with ads for the companies that sponsor Channel One." The commercialism pervading schools in many forms is primarily what organizations like Unplug and Commercial Alert, a Washington, DC-based organization, are working to fight.

Though some success has been seen with ZapME, organizers against commercialism in schools have a long way to go. The aggressive "get 'em while they're young" advertising tactics are not limited to technology companies like ZapME and Channel One. This trend, ominously similar to the techniques of cigarette manufacturers both in this country and abroad, is being adopted by companies like Trix, Nike, Coke and McDonalds who have entered schools directly, sponsoring contests, assemblies, and class activities.

Just as Philip Morris (the world's leading cigarette distributor) discovered in the 1950s, Ed Winters, co-founder of Channel One, re-discovered in the 1990s: "Marketers have come to realize that all roads eventually lead to the schools." While sneakers and soda may not have the same devastating effects as Marlboros, the issue at hand is very much the same. The sacred safe space that schools should be and the innocence of youth from commercialism run rampant must be defended.

There are still companies modeling themselves on Channel One and ZapME. Channel One itself is still running a successful business at the expense of students nationwide. And, while pulling out of educational commercialism, ZapME continues to harm public schools, leaving administrators with no funds to maintain the computers and Internet access they had counted on and set far back in their technological planning.

Read more about The Center for Commercial Free Public Education here.

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