Inglis, a little municipality in Florida, has come to be known as "The Town That Banned Satan," thanks to its feisty mayor, Carolyn Risher.
Inglis is one of those forgotten Florida towns. Bypassed by Interstates and turnpikes, it languishes too far from the vine to take advantage of any economic boom. Its economy is inconsequential; its residents are mostly working-class shrimp fishermen, commuters to the nearby power plant, or retirees. Few tourists visit Inglis.
Thus its 1,500 souls hardly merit a pixel on the big screen of Florida politics. Dozens of American flags line both sides of U.S. 19, leading north out of the nearest big town, Crystal River. The flags fade away long before the highway reaches the bridge spanning the ass-end of Florida's most shameful eco-disaster, the Cross-Florida Barge Canal. Inglis starts halfway across the next bridge, in the middle of the Withlacoochee River.
There is a wide spot in the road where Inglis' one traffic light slows down enough cars to keep two gas stations and a citrus stand in business. A left at that light leads to a big, official-looking brown sign of the type identifying state parks and wildlife refuges. Some 40 years ago, says the sign, Elvis Presley made a movie in Inglis. The town's main drag was renamed Follow That Dream Parkway in honor of that event -- the most significant thing to ever happen in Inglis.
That is, until November, when the town's mayor decided to outlaw Satan.
When I turned down Follow That Dream Parkway, I already knew about the town's Elvis connection. I had called the Inglis town hall a few days before my visit to set up a meeting with the Satan-banning mayor, Carolyn Risher. When I explained I wanted to profile the town, Risher had excitedly told me all about Elvis' visit.
My first contact in Inglis, however, was town clerk Sally McCranie. Mayor Risher was busy when I called. "She's being interviewed by television news from New York," McCranie said. She was happy to tell me all about the Satan ban, however.
The mayor and town clerk had attended a Halloween weenie roast at their church, the Yankeetown Church of God. At the party, Pastor Rick Moore brought up the idea of banning Satan from town. "The mayor felt impelled by God," said McCranie, to participate in the ban; the next day, she drafted a proclamation on city letterhead.
The proclamation began, "Be it known from this day forward that Satan, ruler of darkness, giver of evil, destroyer of what is good and just, is not now, nor ever again will be, a part of this town of Inglis. Satan is hereby declared powerless, no longer ruling over, nor influencing, our citizens."
"She felt inspired to put the words on the paper, but God directed it," said McCranie. "She did the proclamation and signed it, and I signed it along with her."
Risher, McCranie, and Moore then performed a ceremony more appropriate to a Voodoo ritual than to an act of government. They made four photocopies of the proclamation, rolled them up and inserted them into holes drilled into the centers of 4-by-4 fence posts. The determined Christian soldiers then marched the posts onward to the main roads through town and planted the posts at the city limits.
"Then we prayed over them," said McCranie. "And that was it."
The action kicked off a media circus unlike anything seen in Inglis since Elvis. Area newspapers carried the story, which was picked up on the wire services and repeated by newspapers, radio and television stations across the country.
The media had been friendly, McCranie said. I wondered what New York news show would take enough interest in the little town to send a correspondent to Florida. "Some daily news show," she said. The interviewer, she said, was "Steve something." She found his card. "Steve Correll -- that's the guy she's talking to now."
Mayor Risher was facing cameras from Comedy Central's The Daily Show and had no clue they were in town to make fun of her.
A few hours after Correll had finished skewering Risher, she verified the story and explained her motive for exiling Satan from Inglis. "Satan is everywhere. We've had ungodly acts in town," said Risher, citing child abuse, drunkenness, and other generally despicable behavior as examples of Satan's busy hand in her small town.
"Kids have even taken hit lists to school," she said. "And we tried holding a teen dance, but we had fights on the very first night." After hearing Moore's plan, Risher said, "I was directed by the Holy Spirit to reclaim our town back for God, so I wrote and signed the proclamation."
She did not consider the political ramifications of the proclamation and didn't approach the town commission beforehand. "When God moves you to do something, you don't question it," she said, "You just don't question God."
A week after our phone conversation, I entered Inglis with some trepidation. I did not get struck by lightning while crossing the city limits; I took that as a good sign. However, controversy had arisen over the proclamation. One commissioner had questioned the mayor's legal right to publish such blatantly religious remarks on behalf of the city, and area newspapers had reported that Inglis resident Polly Bowser had begun threatening ACLU-assisted legal action. A petition calling for Risher's removal from office reputedly circulated among residents.
Ordinarily, mayors issue proclamations designating dates like "Clean Up Your Yard Day" or in formal support of "National Alcoholism Awareness Month." According to Risher, her proclamation was a ceremonial act, and her job includes serving as the ceremonial head of the town.
"I guess the commission could vote on it," she said. However, a proclamation doesn't carry the legislative weight of an ordinance; it doesn't bind Inglis' citizens to any particular rules or regulations. "It's like when we have an election, we do a proclamation, just to say we're holding an election. It just states a fact."
Attorneys had mixed feelings about the proclamation. After she told Inglis' attorney Norm Fugate about it, "he didn't think it was a problem," Risher said.
Seminole County municipal attorney Lonnie N. Groot explained that a proclamation "generally is an expression of intent, desire, or the general view or opinion of a jurisdiction. It's not a binding piece of legislation." However, he added, a town's charter could require proclamations to be adopted by the commission. "If it says that, then you might have an issue."
Prominent Florida civil rights attorney Steven G. Mason took a more critical view. Such an action on the part of the mayor could be a problem, especially if it influenced other local government philosophies and actions.
"It always comes down to definitions," said Mason. "Define Satan. What does that mean? There are any number of things people call Satanic," he pointed out, including a variety protected artistic expressions, along with some new age religions like Wicca. "Does this mean if someone does something the mayor doesn't like, they have to stop?"
Inglis Commissioner Richard Kellman opposed the proclamation, and was annoyed by a local newspaper's soft-pedaling of his opposition. "I don't agree with the opinions and declarations contained in the proclamation," he said. "And I don't agree that it was correct and appropriate for her to do it."
"I do believe that as private citizens officials have the freedom to express their opinions," he added. "But I don't believe it should have been put on town stationery."
I hoped the controversy had not made Risher and her fellow anti-Satanists media shy. I also wondered about the absence of 4-by-4 fence posts at the city limits. The mayor was "out running errands," said McCranie, who met me at town hall. She assured me Risher would return in the afternoon. The posts, she explained, had been "temporarily taken down. DOT made us move them while they mow," she said. "But we'll put them back up."
The media had been generally positive, but she and Risher were dazed by the controversy. "Never in any of our wildest dreams did we think it would make this raging fire," said McCranie. "It created quite a stir, but I think it's a good stir; 99 percent of the calls we've gotten have been positive."
No one seemed to take seriously the threat of impeachment. "There's a petition to have the mayor and myself removed, but I haven't seen any names on it," she said. "Besides, I read the first amendment, and it says nothing about this."
"Anyway, I think it has changed things," she said. "When you take a stand, it will have an effect. It has gotten some people angry, and it sure got Satan upset. But God always wins."
While waiting for Risher to return, I decided to look around town and talk to her pastor. Moore wasn't quite ready to receive visitors but would be in a half-hour or so, McCranie said. I filled the time driving down Follow That Dream Parkway, which cuts through the heart of Inglis, past the police station and town hall, before crossing the line into neighboring Yankeetown.
Outside Yankeetown, the parkway cuts a straight swath through slash pines, then scrub, and then salt marshes before finally terminating at a boat ramp. Beyond the ramp, the salt marshes reluctantly give way to turtle grass as the land slopes gradually into the gulf. The concrete cooling towers of the Crystal River nuclear power plant loom in the distance, a landmark for the retirees motoring by, hunting trout and redfish.
It doesn't take long to explore the town; it takes up only a few square miles. Captain Inglis founded the settlement before the turn of the century, and a few of the older buildings still stand. They are made, Risher later told me, from rocks gathered from the surrounding woods.
However, most of Inglis appears to have sprung up in 1956, the year it incorporated -- and the year Ed Sullivan's cameras chopped Elvis off at the waist, sparing viewers the sight of his gyrating pelvis. It's a pretty town, in a quaint, fish-camp sort of way. Boston Whalers sit in the ubiquitous carports of nearly every Florida cinderblock home on every pine-shaded street. There are a handful of restaurants and bars, two hotels, and numerous bait and tackle shops.
"There are seven or eight churches in this little town," McCranie had told me. "It's always been a Christian-oriented town; people go to church here." And indeed there seems to be a church on every corner, most of them fundamentalist denominations like Pentecostal and Church of God.
Moore's house is only a few blocks from town hall. I had expected a buzzard-like, Bible-thumping old-time-religionist in a threadbare stovepipe suit and scrawny black tie, or perhaps one of the slicker types with a high pompadour, gold Rolex, and baby-soft, manicured hands.
Instead, a burly, bearded Pastor Moore met me at the door, cordially and firmly shook my hand, and apologized for not being able to see me right away. He had been surfing the Net all morning and had not yet gotten dressed when McCranie called to set up the interview, he said. It was hard to imagine the soft-spoken, affable fellow pounding a pulpit.
He seemed pleasantly surprised by my interest in his point of view. "The media doesn't seem to want to hear from the religious side," he said.
The Yankeetown Church of God was built in the 1960s. However, Moore has lived in Inglis for only two years. He grew up near Tampa and spent more than 22 years as a security policeman in the Air Force, followed by six years teaching ROTC in Ocala. "I have a college education, but it's in criminal justice, not theological," he said.
In early 1995, Moore "got a call" to the ministry and, he said, "gave my life over to God." In the Church of God, he explained, when one receives such a call, he talks to the pastor of his own church. "If he shares the opinion that you're called to the ministry, he works with you" through training and study. The clergyman-to-be then goes to the state office of the church for testing and interviews before receiving the first set of credentials. Moore became pastor of the Yankeetown congregation, which includes "56 people last Sunday."
The mayor's proclamation originated, Moore explained, after he read a book titled The God Chasers, which includes stories about gold-rush pastors who, Moore said, would "stake a claim for God" in their wild and woolly frontier towns.
"I felt impelled to do something like that," he continued. "In our country, there are many people who don't know Christ, don't go to church and don't know God. Inglis and Yankeetown are a microcosm of the country," subject to modern problems like drug abuse and families destroyed by alcoholism. "The local drug task force just arrested a man for having a meth lab in Inglis," said Moore.
"Those are the kinds of things we don't want in our community, and we are determined to fight back in the spiritual realm," he said. "And if you believe in the Bible, you believe there's a Satan, and it has been proven that the closer we are to God, the better off we are."
The mayor and commission were doing what they could in the material realm to fight those problems, too, Moore said. "You have to address these things in nature as well as spiritually," he said. "For non- churchgoers to say Biblical principles have no place is wrong, but it would be just as wrong to say that all we need is prayer."
The local controversy surprised him, he said. "We were all surprised because it was just done to create a (more moral) atmosphere," he said. "Someone got a notion that this imposed some religion on them, but there's no ordinance involved; it was just a symbolic action."
"As a Christian, (Risher) knows how to fight evil," Moore said. "But the only people the proclamation really says anything about would be the Satanists -- people who actually worship the devil -- and the mayor has publicly said that everyone, including them, has a right to their religion."
It was lunchtime when I left Moore's house, so I stopped in the busiest business in town, a barbecue joint on the highway. The barbecue was good, and the waitress too busy to talk. The folks at the surrounding tables just shrugged off questions about Risher.
Fortunately, the ol' boys at D&D Bait were a little more forthcoming. The owner, Dan Cummings, explained why not too many people would care to talk about the proclamation.
"When it first came out, there was some discussion in town," he said. "But people in this area are going about their own thing. It's kind of a non-story to us; I think it's a bigger story everywhere else than it is in town."
As to whether Risher was within her rights to issue the proclamation, Cummings said, "I think it's a lot of blowup over nothing. I'm a Christian myself, but I don't really know whether what she did was right or not."
"She's a loony tune," added a store patron, who preferred to be called, "just Joe."
Cummings added that "just Joe" is one of the best local fisherman in the area. "Joe doesn't think she had a right to say (the proclamation)," said Cummings. "But I think the response of the vast majority of people around here is, "Who cares?'"
Back at Town Hall, I almost bumped into a petite, well-dressed woman in her early 60s who swept the floor just inside the doorway. I wiped my feet on the doormat.
"You'd better wipe your feet," said the woman, smiling. "I hate this sand people track in here."
"Mayor Risher?" I asked.
"That's me," said the woman with the broom as she swept me into her office, where a collection of Elvis memorabilia hangs on the wall behind her desk. Elvis and Jesus share the rest of the office wall and shelf space with photos of family and friends. Risher was born a block from the city limits and has lived her entire 61 years in or near Inglis. Except for "a couple of years, when I was Baptist, I've been Church of God all my life," she said. "And I am just as active in church as I am as mayor." Her father was a county commissioner "for many years," she said. "I used to go with him to rallies, handing out cards and asking people to vote for him." After her five kids "were all grown and gone," said Risher, "I decided it was time to do something for my town." She ran twice for commissioner, getting defeated each time. "But I'm a fighter, and the third time I got the highest vote."
She served one term as commissioner, was re-elected and then decided to run for mayor. "I ran unopposed," she said. She continued to run unopposed for each of her five terms in the office because, Risher says, "In my heart I feel people have been very satisfied with how I've handled the position. They see me working every day, and I believe they feel I'm a good, moral person."
As is typical of such tiny towns, Inglis' mayor works hard for very little money. "I make $350 month," she said, chuckling. "I didn't run for the money; I figured out once that for the time I spend, I make about 45 cents an hour."
"I've been on live talk shows with London, England, and Anchorage, Alaska," Risher gushed. "Channel 8 and 13, Tampa radio, and Harper's magazine interviewed me. I've been on the radio in Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, and Detroit, on Fox 35 TV and radio stations in Massachusetts; Austin and San Antonio, Texas; Seattle, Washington. And New York."
I wondered how she felt about her interview with The Daily Show.
"I was a little upset at The Daily Show," she said. Apparently, The Daily Show team let Risher assume it was just another news show from New York, although while the cameras were rolling, someone tipped off her pastor that the "news" show is really satirical.
"They left out the comedy part until we pressured them," said Risher. When the crew asked her to let them film over her shoulder as she read passages from the Bible, she refused. "I looked (Steven Correll) in the eye and said, "Steve, this isn't a comedy. I won't let you mock God and use me as an instrument to lampoon God's word.' That more or less ended the interview."
"I hear after they left here, they had someone dressed up in a Satan costume," she said ruefully. "They were paying people $20 to come up and tell him to leave town."
Risher agreed that most of the media have treated her well, however. "I was a willing vessel," she said. "Any time you tell someone what God has put on your heart to do, it makes you feel good that God gets that recognition."
Some interviewers had even suggested other mayors should take a similar stand, and Risher agrees. "Our currency says "In God we trust'; and our nation was founded on biblical principles," said Risher. "I think we should encourage other legislators to take the nation back for God. I'm asking God for a worldwide revival to bring people together -- to stand as one against the evil that causes all these bad things in the world, to love one another and to raise our kids in a Godly atmosphere."
Some people might question whether it was appropriate for a government leader to focus on Satan as the cause for some of those ills, I said. Perhaps they'd prefer government address issues like economics and education, rather than Satan.
"Everyone knows what Satan's done," Risher responded. "And to me, it doesn't take education or money to know how to treat your fellow man right."
Several weeks after my visit with Risher, the ACLU threatened to file suit in federal court against Inglis. After receiving notice of the pending litigation, the commission held a special meeting. They determined that the proclamation was solely an act of the mayor and not an official action of the commission.
According to Edinger, the commission "avoided the necessity for federal litigation" by voting to adopt a resolution declaring that the proclamation was not an act of government and of no force or effect.
"The rationale behind this was that the mayor has no authority to issue a proclamation without the vote of the City Council," said Edinger. The commission also required Risher to pay back the cost of copying the proclamation and to move the proclamation-bearing 4-by-4s to private property.
Inglis commissioner Gary Mosher commented that he "personally didn't have any problem with (the proclamation). I think it came out of inspiration, and it was in a positive direction." However, he explained, "Everything has to be approved by the commission. The commission pretty much runs the town, so until the ordinance is changed, the commission has to approve pretty much everything."
Risher took the commission's action as a light slap of the hand. "I will die stating that I did the right thing," she said. "They haven't convinced me that I have done anything wrong." Nor, she said, have they "impressed or convinced me that there's a separation of church and state."
Whether the controversy might affect Risher's chances for running unopposed when her next bid for re-election arrives remains to be seen. "I think they're content with what I've been doing," she added. "If not, there would be someone else running for this seat."
"Maybe next time there will be an opponent," Risher mused. "But I welcome a challenge. I'm a fighter; they won't bother me at all."
Risher believes the support she has received from the media and public provides evidence that she has done no wrong. When the commission met to decide otherwise, "The town hall overflowed with people that came to support me," she said. "There were cameras all over the place. CNN was here live the next morning, and people have called from all over the world; they thought it was awesome."
Risher claims that her callers have included community leaders who plan to take a similar stand against Satan. She happily advises those who want to "get on the bandwagon" to "pray first," and "if God tells you to do it, you should do it."
"My goal is to keep the flame burning," she added. "I expect there to be more battles," said Risher. "But God can give us the strength and power to deal with the opposition."
Not all of Florida's community leaders are as supportive as Risher believes. Mark Shuttleworth is the mayor of Lake Helen, a small Florida town with a commission the size of Inglis' and a population slightly more diverse. Churches, some dating before 1900, stand prominently on its tree-shaded corners.
Asked if he would consider hopping onto Risher's bandwagon, Shuttleworth answered flatly, "No."
"Every elected official has their own source of spiritual inspiration, but to use the government to impose that on a group of people is wrong," Shuttleworth explained. "Government should be careful to consider the feelings of individuals of all religions -- or non- religions, for that matter.
"We're supposed to consider all the people we represent and be considerate of their point of view," he added. "That's really what America is about."
However, he said, other government leaders might not hold that fundamental principal sacred. On a recent trip to Tallahassee, Shuttleworth heard Florida legislators "pushing something of the same kind of thing, the idea that every school should have to display a big plaque (on its campus) that will say "In God We Trust.'"
"I think that's a little more inclusive," he said, "but it still pushes the line a little bit. I think that's about as far as government could go before it steps on the toes of those with other viewpoints."
In our conversation, Pastor Moore brought up an interesting point: "After Sept. 11, the mayor organized prayer vigils and a candlelight service at Town Hall," he said. "Over 500 people came to that, and they all sang church songs as well as patriotic songs. The whole community was patting her on the back for that. But how is that different from this proclamation?"
I pointed out to Moore that the proclamation contains some pretty strong language; it mentions "citizens cleansed by the Blood of the Lamb" exercising their "authority over the devil in Jesus' name" to command "satanic and demonic forces" to leave town. Perhaps, I suggested, it's relatively easy to sing God Bless America and talk about evil in Afghanistan and in New York, but it's harder to take when evil is so righteously pointed out in your own back yard.
"That's exactly right," said Moore. "And that's what I call paying lip service to God."
One might admire Risher's faith. One can hardly find fault with her concern for the welfare of Inglis' citizens, or even her resolve to fight evil in "the spiritual realm." However, Risher has ignored one of the most basic tenets of American governance, that imperative to protect the rights and beliefs of individuals, regardless of their religious beliefs or disbelief. Some Americans might call that "paying lip service" to the Constitution.
When Morris Sullivan isn't holy rolling his way through small towns, he's a freelancer who lives in DeLand, Fla.
It's back-to-school time--time to hit the books and learn new things: how to factor an equation, for example; and that the capital of Idaho is Boise; that America entered World War II after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor; that "antidisestablishmentarianism" is a noun; and that Pepsi is better than Coke.
Schools have displayed and disseminated corporate propaganda for a long time. In the '60s, some accepted free book covers, printed with ads, for example. Coke and Pepsi have long been out-bidding each other for the right to advertise on stadium scoreboards, and everything from band candy to book fairs turned school kids into marketing devices, pushing products to help fund school activities.
From time to time, the practice of using American schoolchildren to help turn a profit has stirred up controversy; even as early as 1929, enough concern existed about corporate influence over curriculum to prompt the National Education Association to create a Committee on Propaganda in the Schools.
In recent decades, school budget crunches have driven many school districts to look for creative ways to fund their needs, and corporations have been quick to respond with dazzling deal-making. America's kids are a large and growing market; pre-teen children spend about $15 billion per year and influence their parents to spend another $160 billion; teenagers spend about $57 billion of their own allowance and talk mom and dad into spending another $36 billion. The situation was summed up in a 1995 interview with James U. McNeal, president of McNeal & Kids Youth Marketing Consultants: kids are "the big spending superstars in the consumer constellation," he said.
When it comes to marketing to kids, corporations have a simple strategy. They enlist the child as an agent in prying money away from mom and dad. That's why they use television time that parents don't watch, like Saturday morning cartoons, or put ads at the beginning of children's videos. And the most aggressive kid-targeted advertising focuses on the stuff parents don't want them to have--junk food and junk toys.
So while school budgets are tightening, corporations from soda and junk food manufacturers to tobacco companies are engaging in fiercer and fiercer competition for the kiddy dollar. The combination, in some parts of the U.S. and Canada, seems to have led to a marriage made in hell, in which schools and students have turned into easy marks for the corporate sales pitch.
The advertising schemes appearing regularly in schools are far wider-reaching than the old "we'll supply your school with free book covers, paid for by the ads printed on them" or "we'll give your stadium a scoreboard, but it'll have the Coke logo on it" deals. The schools, in most cases, get something more substantial than book covers--they may get a "free" computer lab, for example, or a "free" television set for every classroom. However, in some of these deals, students are required to watch television ads in class. In others, students can surf the 'net in the school's computer lab, but only visit "approved" sites, and only after seeing the ads appearing on the "approved" browser.
Perhaps the least pernicious of the corporate ad deals involves simply selling school space for ads. In 1996, the Colorado Springs school district became one of the first to formally decide to supplement revenues by offering advertising space in its schools. They sold space on the school buses, turning them into mobile billboards and allowed school hallways to fill with posters.
Since then, more and more corporate dollars have worked their way into school districts, and several of the more elaborate advertising schemes and scams have sparked major controversies. For example, several Toronto-area schools started testing new screen savers on their school computers. The screensavers mixed motivational messages with pitches for Pepsi, Coke, Burger King, MacDonald's, and Trident. The district cited budget cutbacks as the motive for the ads, pointing out that they could raise close to one-half million dollars each year from the plan.
Lin Wright, media specialist for Florida's Orange County Public Schools, said that the district has avoided using its schools as billboards in exchange for extra budget bucks. "I can't give you an official reason," he said, "but we've never agreed to anything like that."
However, Wright understands why some school officials get in bed with advertisers, although he doesn't agree with the practice. "That's a real dilemma for a lot of folks," he said. "All school systems are strapped for cash, but you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater." Advertising to kids in school, Wright said, "diverts attention from the real mission."
According to Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, more and more schools are, as Wright said, diverting from "the real mission" in exchange for corporate budget relief. The trend, according to CU, comes from three main sources: chronic school budget problems, the growing presence of commercialism in society, and the competition among corporations for the growing youth market.
In a 45-page report produced by a study on advertising pressures on children, CU observed trends such as teachers using educational material and programs in classrooms "that are produced by commercial interests and contain biased, self-serving and promotional information."
The report added that there is increased pressure on educators to "form partnerships with businesses that turn students into captive audiences for commercial messages...in exchange for some needed resource." Consequently, it said, America's classrooms, cafeterias, hallways, and restrooms have turned into display cases for "licensed brand goods, coupons, sweepstakes, and outright advertisements."
CU concludes that the trends "violate the integrity of education," especially when the marketing masquerades as educational materials. However, they warn, "when sorely needed equipment or teaching materials come only with an agreement to promote the donor's products to kids and their parents, it may be hard to say no."
A few of those "hard to say no to" items have included incentive programs by General Mills, Pizza Hut, and Campbell's Soup, such as Campbell's "Labels for Education," which urges students to push their families to buy their products. Sponsored educational materials have also found their way into the classroom, with products that would be almost laughable, were they not so tragic. Chips Ahoy has a counting game that has kids calculating the number of chocolate chips in their cookies, for example. McDonald's offers a nutrition lesson, and both Shell Oil and Chevron have produced widely distributed materials dealing with environmental issues.
Other deals schools haven't resisted include those made with Pepsi and Coke, who have fought over school vending machine markets for decades. For example, President Bush's Secretary of Education, Roderick Page, is the former Superintendent of the Houston Independent School District. While there, he arranged a five-year marketing deal with Coke. By agreeing to give Coke an exclusive on school soda sales and allowing them to advertise in schools, the district received a $5 million commission on the soda purchased by the kids.
Page is not the only school superintendent to make a similar deal with a soda company; such deals have become almost de rigueur in some school districts. For example, some Portland, Oregon high schools have granted exclusive rights to Pepsi to market its sodas on campus. In one such agreement, Pepsi contributed $17,000 for the construction of a press box for a high school baseball field, spent $3,000 to upgrade the school's electrical service (to provide outlets for the vending machines), and pledged to provide $2,000 per year in "support money" plus 40 cents for every case of Pepsi products sold on campus. Pepsi also provides $4,000 per year worth of homework planners to distribute to the students; the planners feature the company's logo on the back page.
Many people think that all those bucks going into school coffers is a great deal. However, the incentive programs probably cost the students far more than the money brought into the school district. According to a British medical journal and other studies cited by the American Academy of Pediatricians, there is a direct link between childhood obesity and soda consumption, and both obesity and diabetes has become an escalating problem among American kids. With more than ten teaspoons of sugar in the average twelve-ounce soda, it's no wonder.
Orange County (Florida) Public Schools does permit some advertising to enter the classroom: student planners, for example, are distributed to students for free, and ads for local businesses are mixed in with the calendar of holidays and sporting events. However, more aggressive advertising that targets kids, like during in-school television shows, Wright said, moves more into "kind of a gray area. Where do you draw the line?"
Some people draw the line at Channel One, the in-school television network. The brainchild of Christopher Whittle, Channel One entered the schools by offering them free television sets. In exchange for the equipment, the students would be required to watch a twelve-minute news magazine-type show almost every school day. As electronic media has grown in importance, many teachers consider television an invaluable teaching tool. Many educators embraced Channel One as a means of getting free television sets into their classrooms, and as one social studies teacher said to the New York Times, "I use it [to teach current events] because most of these kids will never read the newspaper."
Of course, no one gives televisions away for free, and the "price" of the TV sets and current events program seems small enough--two of the twelve minutes is devoted to advertising. And the value of that advertising was summed up in a statement by Channel One's Joel Babbit, who said of the company's strategy that "the advertiser gets a group of kids who cannot go to the bathroom, cannot change the stationSwho cannot have their headsets on."
Not everyone thinks Channel One's deal is all that great--at least not for the students who watch the required ads. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a statement calling for the control of advertising to children. "The American Academy of Pediatrics," it read, "believes advertising directed toward children is inherently deceptive and exploits children under eight years of age."
The study pointed out that, even before Channel One, "American children have viewed an estimated 360,000 advertisements on television before graduating from high school. Additional exposures include advertisements on the radio, in print media, on public transportation, and billboards."
Advertising to children is effective, the study stated, using Joe Camel as a prime example. "In two recent studies," it read, "one third of three-year-old children and nearly all children older than age six were able to recognize Joe Camel." The smoking camel, it added, is as familiar to children over six "as Mickey Mouse." The ads are effective, it concludes. "Camel's share of the illegal cigarette market represents sales of $476 million per year--one third of all cigarette sales to minors.
"There have been numerous studies documenting that children under eight years of age are developmentally unable to understand the intent of advertisements and, in fact, accept advertising claims as true," AAP continued. "Children who are developmentally unprepared to distinguish between advertising puffery and fact are equally unprepared to ferret out the 'as part of a nutritious breakfast' disclaimer on a sugary, empty calorie breakfast cereal."
Children are even less likely to distinguish between information and advertising when the ads reach them in school, the study concludes. "The placement of an ad in a school setting seems to automatically imply that the authorities on which the children rely for an education have endorsed the product."
The pediatricians' document also points out that the products most likely to be advertised to children are those they don't need, and that in fact are often harmful to them. "Television viewing has been associated with obesity," it says, "the most prevalent nutritional disease among children in the United States."
Since its inception, Channel One has been attacked by liberals, by groups of educators, by pediatricians, and by conservative groups offended by its advertising of movies containing violence and sex, such as its ads for "Dude, Where's My Car?"--a movie about two potheads so stoned they can't remember where they parked.
Others have attacked on the "diversion from the mission" basis, claiming that it takes valuable time away from education. The "news" presented on the program is of the "MTV variety," according to one former student, thus "hardly worth watching." Worse still, according to professor Alex Molnar of the University of Wisconsin and economist Max Sawicky, the advertising time alone costs more than the TV sets are worth.
As Molnar and Sawicky explained, U.S. taxpayers spend about $1.8 million on the class time occupied by Channel One--12 minutes per day, nine days every two weeks. Out of that, the advertising alone costs $300 million per year, which far exceeds the total value of the equipment.
In a strategy similar to Channel One's, a computer network company, ZapMe!, offered schools an equipment-for-advertising swap that looked like a great deal: the company would set up a fifteen-computer lab in a school, complete with Internet access. In exchange, the school would agree to make sure the computers were used at least four hours per day. Also, the school would pay the cost of insuring the computers and allow ZapMe! and its clients to use the lab after school hours. ZapMe! would retain ownership of the computers, but it would also maintain them and leave them free for the school to use as long as the school upheld its end of the bargain.
From the schools' perspective, the deal seemed almost too good to be true--and it was. ZapMe! had a double-headed hidden agenda; while the kids surfed the Internet, they would do so using the ZapMe! browser, which would direct advertising at them. The ZapMe! contract also required students to bring home sponsor information to their parents at least three times a year.
Students would also be surfing with ZapMe!'s own browser which would allow them access to 10,000 approved web sites, including Amazon.com. Jim Metrock of Obligation, Inc., a non-profit, child advocacy organization that has gone after Channel One almost from the beginning, attacked ZapMe! with even more enthusiasm when ZapMe! worked its way into public schools. The computer/internet service combination, he pointed out, offered 110 video games that students could play in the lab during school hours.
Worse still, the browser included in its advertising a link to violent and self-described "addictive" video games like Doom, as well as promotions for age-inappropriate movies. The approval of the web sites, he added, seemed to have more to do with sponsorship dollars than content. "I clicked on the Amazon.com link to order movies and simply by typing 'Playboy' came up with numerous Playboy videos that most parents would agree are not appropriate for children," he wrote.
Advertising and blatant marketing aside, the company's worst offense was its market research ploy--without the knowledge or permission of students, parents, or school administrators, they monitored the kids' internet surfing, then delivered to their advertisers the data they gathered, broken down by age, zip code, and sex.
After the marketing agendas of Channel One and ZapMe! came to light, several activists' and parents' groups allied to combat marketing in schools. Commercial Alert, founded by Gary Ruskin and Ralph Nader, began heading a coalition to eliminate Channel One from the nation's schools. An ironic group of Naderist liberals and conservative organizations like the United Methodist Church, the organization has begun a letter writing campaign, petitioning schools to remove Channel One from their classrooms and asking legislators to endorse anti-commercial legislation. The controversy surrounding Channel One, fortunately, has hindered the company's growth and led to its restructuring. However, it is still in many schools, and trying to enter more.
And once the market research agenda behind ZapMe! was uncovered, an assault by parents and activist groups had an even more damaging effect on the company than did the Channel One siege, and many of their in-school activities were "zapped." The company has since restructured, changed its name to rStar networks, and repositioned itself as a satellite Internet service. However, ZapMe!/rStar may still be up to many of its same old tricks. It offers corporations the opportunity to sponsor its LearningGate through its Corporate Adoption Program. The goal, according to the LearningGate website, is to "build America's largest Internet educational network" while offering their corporate partners a chance to "expand their educational presence on our growing network."
Partly in response to the ZapMe! debacle, a last-minute amendment to the Senate's education bill, which passed in June, limits market research in the classroom. However, with the Bush administration's pro-big business attitudes and its apparent support of voucher plans and other privatizing influences on education, exploiting the school marketplace is sure to become an even more critical issue.
It is unlikely that Bush and his sidemen will be too diligent when it comes to protecting America's kids from corporate propaganda. Tobacco advertising aimed at kids has been one of the most controversial--and most lawsuit-riddled--of advertising genres. Bush's Chief of Consumer Protection at theFederal Trade Commission, J. Howard Beales III, is an economist mainly known for his defense of R.J. Reynolds and its Joe Camel campaign. David Scheffman, new head of the FTC's Bureau of Economics, also worked for the tobacco industry.
Ralph Reed was one of Bush's advisers during his campaign and helped him gain the support of conservative and religious-right voters, even while he was actively lobbying for Microsoft. The former head of the Christian Coalition, Reed now runs Century Strategies, a lobbying firm that recently tried to defeat legislation prohibiting market research on students without parental consent. He has also lobbied for Channel One.
There is an even more frightening prospect than that of exploiting children for profit indirectly by advertising to them. With Bush's pro-privatization agenda--promoting the use of public bucks to fund private-school education and encouraging other private-enterprise forays into the field of education--the very real danger exists that our children's education will itself be tapped as a corporate profit source.
For example, the founder of Channel One, Christopher Whittle, left the organization after the controversy surrounding it hurt its bottom line. However, he has started a new business, one with the potential of becoming perhaps the ultimate kid-marketing ploy, Edison Schools. A management company which contracts to take over management of public schools, sets up charter schools, and the like, Edison is a for-profit business with investors who hope to earn a good return on their seed money.
According to analysts at Merrill Lynch & Co., which helped Edison raise $122 million in its 1999 initial public offering, the company will manage 423 schools with 260,000 students by 2005, bringing it revenues of $1.8 billion. Investors in for-profit schools have included such heavy-hitters as J.P. Morgan and Fidelity Ventures.
The Republican Party line has, for several years, promoted the idea that private enterprise is more efficient than government bureaucracy, and that private and for-profit schools could perform better on less money than public. However, one way they do that is by cutting back on administrative salaries. Another is by paying their teachers less. Certainly, an expensive private school might offer a better education than public schools, and some charter schools seem to better address the needs of small groups of nontraditional or at-risk students.
So far, however, no one has shown that for-profit schools can perform better over the broad spectrum served by public schools. Even if some do well over the short run as they buy their way into the market, the long-term prospects are frightening. What might happen when educators could begin competing for students using the kind of marketing razzle-dazzle offered by Mountain Dew commercials, or when their bottom-line objectives could drive administrators to skimp further on teaching salaries and materials?
One consistent supporter of voucher-supported private schools, John T. Walton, has also been a heavy investor in for-profit schools. Walton, the son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, owns a $20 billion stake in Wal-Mart and sits on the company's board. In April of 1999, Walton invested $50 million in a private voucher effort and urged the Walton Family Foundation to give $2 million to CEO America, a company that supports private scholarship programs and lobbies for public vouchers. He recently stepped down from the board of a struggling for-profit school organization and sold his stake in the organization at a $1 million loss--after critics accused him of pushing school voucher programs to help fund his investments in for-profit schools.
It would be hard to support a claim that America's school systems are everything they should be, and with our growing dependency on technology, American schools will face greater and greater challenges in the coming decades. However, it is highly doubtful that the entrepreneurial vision that makes Wal-Mart successful--offering a broadly homogeneous assortment of stuff at bottom-dollar prices--could drive an educational organization to excellence.
The ultimate purpose of education is to help students become better at critical thinking. The ultimate goal of marketing is the opposite of that--to sell to the viewer stuff they don't need by making them think that they do. It is impossible to imagine that corporate profiteering could do anything more with education than turn our children into more placid employees and more trusting consumers.
This article originally appeared in IMPACT Press. Morris Sullivan taught English and Social Sciences at a central Florida private school for two years and now writes freelance for newspapers and magazines. He is perhaps best known, however, as a playwright--his "Femmes Fatale," created to challenge a Florida nudity ordinance, contains the infamous "nude Macbeth."