The new frontier for the commercialization of childhood and public life? Our local high schools. As Bill Pennington of the New York Times describes (October 18, 2004) how budget-squeezed school districts around the country are looking to advertisers for some “free” money. Now that marketing opportunities in college sports have reached a saturation point — with $4 billion being spent on naming rights, licensing deals and straight-up advertising — companies are looking to local high school sports.
Look closely, because we are on the cusp of a market enclosure of a local commons. Here’s a chilling quote from a representative of Sports Marketing Group, a California company: “Companies desperately want to get into high schools, because they know they are getting a captive audience with disposable income that is about to make decisions of life-long preference, like Coke versus Pepsi. So the commercialism is coming to a school near you: the high school cheerleaders will be brought to you by Gatorade, and the football team will be presented by Outback.”
Many “sophisticated” people dismiss complaints about creeping commercialism in public institutions as misguided or futile. “Advertising is everywhere, after all, so what’s wrong with a little bit more,” goes the refrain. I disagree. Something important is lost when the regional high school basketball championships are officially the “Toyota basketball championships” and high school facilities are “sponsored” by ShopRite. The $165,000 that Toyota spent to secure its marketing platform is a rank purchase of our shared local culture, not a beneficient “donation,” as some local sports-marketers like to claim.
One of the few stalwarts combating this commercial invasion is my good friend Gary Ruskin, the director of Commercial Alert. It’s worth checking out his ongoing activism in this area.