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Wednesday, November 26, 2014         

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Schools no place for product placement


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Advertising is part of many public and private venues, from smart phones to elevator cars. Trying to get your message out is what helps fuel business, and business fuels the economy.

But if there's one place where there should be more control of the message, it's in the school environment. There, it's the teacher's primary task to educate the students, and maintaining focus on the core message — the curriculum the schools want to cover — becomes harder in the face of distractions.

The state Board of Education is considering a plan to enable cash-hungry schools to raise money by accepting campus signs containing positive messages sponsored by companies, complete with the company logo. The Department of Education, painfully aware of all the cuts into school expenditures in recent years, supports the idea.

As much as out-of-the box thinking and private partnerships deserve support, there are better routes for companies to invest in public schools than this. The proposal, while well-intentioned by educators, would raise many problems while providing the needed money.

Here's one: Even if the posters' benign messages are chosen by school authorities, the logo at the bottom communicates its own meaning, one that may not align with school policies. If, say, a soft-drink company wants to sponsor an ad, how does that recognizable logo play with the schools' campaign to promote more healthful food on campus? And for the school or the BOE to accept only certain companies for the program while rejecting others might set up needless arguments.

Further, once the school comes to expect the advertising revenue, it will be tempting to expand the program too far, with too many posters or signs in less appropriate spots.

A better way for companies to support education may be underwriting school enrichment programs or sharing the costs of the educational materials. A company logo or other acknowledgement printed in them would put a feather in the sponsor's cap at the time without becoming too intrusive in the school-day environment. Some programs have issued small packets with coupons or discount offers for students to take home upon completion; their parents can decide whether to redeem them.

Hawaii is certainly not alone in considering this money-making plan of advertising in schools. In suburbs surrounding Minneapolis, for example, school districts are contemplating allowing advertising on 10-15 percent of available surfaces, including walls, floors and student lockers. And the revenue take goes up the higher the percentage of space the school will accept, so it's clear where temptation creeps into the decisions down the road.

One of the school officials there stressed that it's a one-year test program that could be canceled if problems arise, but he added that "if they become kind of a normal, everyday deal, it could just be part of the culture."

This state's school administrators should think long and hard about whether that's where they want Hawaii schools to go, whether advertising should become part of the campus culture. Once schools go there, it would be tough to come back.






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