Margaret Wente on high-school kids for sale

By Margaret Wente

The Globe and Mail Thursday, June 24, 1999

What's the going rate for guaranteed commercial access to your kid? At Meadowvale High School in Mississauga, Ont., the answer is a couple of hundred thousand dollars' worth of computer equipment. That's what it gets for turning over its students to a daily ration of TV advertising starting this fall. And what are the kids worth to advertisers? They'll pay $40 to reach each 1,000 kids who see an ad once.

Teenage kids are among the most elusive and highly prized of advertising targets -- elusive, because they're so fragmented and hard to reach; prized, because their brand preferences have not yet gelled into lifetime habit. That's why Pepsi and Nike are so eager to implant their brand in your kid's brain. Give them a child until he is 18, and he'll probably drink Pepsi for life.

That is the chief investment proposition behind an operation called Youth News Network. Its founders have discovered where all those kids are, and how to get at them. They're in school! And the teachers can make them sit still and pay attention!

And so, come September, the 1,700 students at Meadowvale will get 2Omega minutes of TV commercials in the classroom every day of the week, as will the students in at least 30 more schools across Canada.

What's in it for the schools? A video monitor in every classroom, some other computer technology and TV broadcasting equipment, and a 12Omega minute daily newscast aimed at kids (it contains basically the same news you get everywhere). The commercials are in the newscast. The schools will schedule the newscast right into teachers' class time. You can be excused, but only with a note from your parents.

YNN has had a slow start in Canada. It's been shut out by the governments of British Columbia, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and the Catholic schools won't allow it either. But times are changing. Schools everywhere don't have much money for computer equipment of their own. And the idea of forging corporate partnerships is newly fashionable.

Meadowvale, YNN's flagship school, signed up this month. The school is in Peel Region, the largest school district in Ontario. It's a solid, middle-class sort of place. The chairwoman of Peel's board, Janet McDougald, told me, "We're supportive of corporate partnerships in general." TV ads, she says, are just an extension of the corporate messages that invaded the classroom long ago. "I don't think we can be naive enough to think the business world is not interested in attracting young people to their product. It's a matter of personal preference whether you think one logo is more intrusive than another."

YNN is owned by Telescene, a Montreal TV and film production company that makes shows like Student Bodies and Big Wolf on Campus. The YNN concept is a straight steal from Channel One, a highly profitable U.S. venture that reaches more than eight million students in 12,000 schools. The schools, most of them in poorer neighbourhoods, must guarantee that 80 per cent of their students watch the commercials 90 per cent of the time, a provision that YNN has waived for now in order to get its first contracts signed. Channel One's advertising revenues amount to around $1-billion a year.

A lot of parents and kids say YNN's quid pro quo is fine with them. Her kids are so media-smart already, says one mom, that a few more commercial exposures will just roll right off them.

I disagree. I do not think you have to be anti-business to believe there is some line worth drawing at the classroom door. I do not think you have to be a warmed-over 1960s idealist to believe that schools should try to teach kids that citizenship is a higher value than consumption. I do not think they need their school to remind them every day that they are a demographically desirable target market, for sale to the highest bidder.

There's a whole wide world outside the schoolroom to teach them that.