White Spot, a popular BC restaurant chain, solicits hamburger concepts from third and fourth grade students and one of the student’s ideas becomes a feature on the kids’ menu. Home Depot donates playground equipment to an elementary school, and the ribbon-cutting ceremony culminates in a community swathed in corporate swag, temporary tattoos, and a new “Home Depot song” written by a teacher and sung by the children. Kindergarten students return home with a school district-prescribed dental hygiene flyer featuring a maze leading to a tube of Crest toothpaste. Schools receive five cents for each flyer handed to a student. While commercialism has existed in our schools for over a century, the corporate invasion of our schools reached unprecedented heights in the 1990s and 2000s after two decades of federal funding cuts and an increasing tendency to apply business models to the education system. Constant cutbacks have left school trustees, administrators, teachers, and parents with difficult decisions about how to finance programs and support students. Meanwhile, studies on the impact of advertising and consumer culture on children make clear that the effects are harmful both to the individual child and the broader culture. Captive Audience explores this compelling history of branding the classroom in Canada.
Catherine Gidney is a professor of history at St. Thomas University. She writes about youth culture and students in revolt over everything from vending machines to curfews to war. She is the author of Tending the Student Body: Health, Youth and the Rise of the Modern University, 1900-1960 and A Long Eclipse: The Liberal Protestant Establishment and the English-Canadian University Campus, 1920-1970.