This week, students at Richard R. Green Central Park School were gathered in the auditorium to watch a preview for the movie “Goosebumps” when they received a surprise visit from the film’s star, Jack Black. I, too, was surprised — and extremely disappointed — when I read about Black’s visit in the Star Tribune (“Kids get ‘Goosebumps,’ ” Oct. 1).

There was one audience, however, who wasn’t surprised. The media. They were given plenty of advance notice and red carpet access to witness, record and promote the experience.

Let’s call a spade a spade. This “surprise” event was nothing more than a publicity gimmick for Black’s new movie, courtesy of the Scholastic Corporation and Sony Pictures. The Star Tribune reported that Scholastic, “reached out to the school with the idea of a top-secret drop-in.”

This type of promotion is a blatant violation of the Minneapolis Public Schools policy on advertising in the schools, which states: “Neither the facilities, the staff, nor the children of the schools shall be employed in any manner for advertising or otherwise promoting the interests of any commercial, political, or other nonschool agency, individual or organization.”

As MPS’ policy rightly recognizes, corporate marketing campaigns have no business being part of our children’s school day. Not only does this type of event exploit a captive audience of students, it also undermines parents who wish to limit their children’s exposure to commercial messages. And anything advertised in a school, particularly in the presence of teachers and the principal, comes with the school’s powerful endorsement.

This “top-secret” promotional stunt by Sony and Scholastic demonstrates the insatiable appetite corporations have for reaching children outside the influence of their parents. “Goosebumps” is much more than a movie and a book series. It’s a brand that will be cross-promoted on dozens of products in stores and other venues in the coming weeks to coincide with the launch of the movie. By turning over their auditorium to Black, Scholastic and Sony, Green school administrators were promoting not only the “Goosebumps” movie but all of its associated merchandise from toys to video games to apparel.

Scholastic has a history of using schools for marketing ploys. Scholastic is given unique access to sell to students in schools through its book clubs. Educators rightly recognize that promoting books is important, but Scholastic uses the book clubs to also market toys, video games, and trinkets that have absolutely no educational value. Scholastic has also produced sponsored educational materials on behalf of paying clients like Shell, Nestlé and the American Coal Federation.

Let’s not forget the parents of these children. Were they notified ahead of this “surprise” event that their children were going to be part of a marketing campaign disguised as a literacy event?

Corporations in America spend $17 billion per year advertising to children because they know they are a highly influential group of consumers who are uniquely vulnerable to advertising. Giving corporations unfettered access to students during the school day and without parental knowledge should give us all cause for pause.

As the parent of a 5-year-old in the Minneapolis Public Schools, I expect more from the administrators who are entrusted with the safekeeping of our children and the media who race to cover these events without thinking about the impact on the target audience. In the future, I hope my school district and the media will have a more discerning eye about the motives behind such events. Our children need you to be their advocates, not pawns in corporate marketing campaigns.

 

Nathan Dungan of Minneapolis is a board member for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.