Enron Elementary: Is corporate sponsorship going too far?

    When Greenbrier High School senior Mike Cameron was suspended for wearing a Pepsi shirt in defiance of his high school’s support of Coke in Education Day, he became an instant martyr. Educational publications, critics of big businesses and Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation,” trumpeted Cameron as a sane mind brave and righteous enough to stand up to huge corporations.

    But what the holier-than-thou, “education-is-sacred” protesters don’t mention, or at least not often enough, is that the kid wasn’t really trampled on by corporate desire, but was suspended for an inconsiderate prank in defiance of a decent cause. On the day Cameron made history as a subversive sage, Coca-Cola executives were visiting his high school in Evans, Ga., to lecture on economics and do other activities with students as a culmination of a series of philanthropic gestures. Greenbrier High was competing for a cash prize from the Coca-Cola Company and had organized a school photo with students spelling out the word “Coke.” It was during that photo shoot that Cameron flashed his shirt.

    But even if Cameron, who later told the Washington Post that he just wanted to be an individual, had an altruistic anti-corporate ideal, the school still would have been entirely justified in suspending him. Sure, Coca-Cola most likely wanted to make money and Coke in Education Day was one big publicity stunt. Nevertheless, the school benefitted.

    Cameron made his move at an incredibly opportune point in history: public opinion was in his favor. Recent studies, publications and commercials (ironically enough) have warned that our consumer culture is beginning to control us, that consumers are too easily influenced by advertising, that they buy products because of an inability to see through some evil corporate scheme to take our money. In “Fast Food Nation,” a long-time bestseller, Schlosser won over countless Americans by urging them to fight against the corporate world and all advertising therein. To Schlosser and his compatriots, accepting funds from Coca-Cola on behalf of a school is equivalent to selling one’s soul to the devil.

    Naturally, if a school garnered funds by advertising some sort of illegal substance, or accepted donations for endorsing a controversial topic, then of course the funding would be highly questionable. But it’s unrealistic to make a blanket justification against accepting money from a corporation in exchange for advertising. As long as a sponsoring business restricts its demands to reasonable advertising, neither the school nor its students are harmed. To the contrary, education benefits from corporate sponsorship.

    Dan DeRose, a Colorado entrepreneur, has made a career of pitting corporations against each other to vie for advertising rights in public school districts. In 1997, he negotiated a $3.4 million contract between Dr. Pepper/Seven Up, Inc. and Texas’ Grapevine-Colleyville School District. In exchange for funding, Dr. Pepper advertisements adorned the school’s rooftops. Whine all you want about commercialization, but that’s hardly amoral.

    Beverage companies have set a precedent for entering contracts in which they are the sole on-campus beverage providers. This simply means that students purchase Pepsi instead of Coke from on-campus vending machines. Thanks to this new market, schools now earn nearly $30 per child under such contracts, as opposed to less than a dollar when corporate sponsorship was an entirely novel concept.

    This practice could be taken too far, of course. But a student whose school’s vending machines offer both Coke and Pepsi would not necessarily be better-informed about consumer culture or decision-making. Nor would a student attending Qualcomm High School know less about presidential history than a student attending John F. Kennedy High School.

    Furthermore, schools rarely receive money entirely free of any agenda — political, commercial or otherwise. Currently, public schools are funded largely by taxpayers’ money, and it is those same taxpayers who vote on various propositions affecting public schools. Most public universities rely on donations from assorted alumni.

    So let a school be sponsored by Pepsi. Allow a Sony Middle School. There’s no point in declining badly needed funding for unfounded, idealistic reasons. As long as the rights given to sponsors are limited to insignificant issues such as name, schools will greatly benefit from the subsequent funding.

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