Flavor Crystals as Brain Food: Unplug TV Commercials in Schools

By Fox, Roy F. | Phi Delta Kappan, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Flavor Crystals as Brain Food: Unplug TV Commercials in Schools


Fox, Roy F., Phi Delta Kappan


Private, vulnerable, and sacred, a human's psyche is not a commodity to be sold. Yet such commerce will continue until we ban TV commercials from our schools, Mr. Fox warns.

"What's advertised on Channel One?"

"Cinnaburst," replied Eric, a ninth-grader. "You know - that gum with those little red dots and -"

"No," injected Lisa, "those are flavor crystals."

Eric paused and muttered, "Oh yeah, flavor crystals." He quickly continued describing the other ads he'd seen on Channel One, which beams news and MTV-esque commercials for Skittles candy, Gatorade, and other products to eight million students daily. When Lisa corrected her classmate on the commercial's wording, the others nodded in agreement. Interviewing more than 200 rural Missouri kids tells me that these commercials penetrate deeply into their language, thinking, and behavior.

In one year of exposure to Channel One, students can watch 700 commercials, viewing the same one hundreds of times, such as the "Be Like Mike" ad, starting Michael Jordan. Even worse, commercials are "rerun" millions of times as the students spontaneously sing the catchy jingles, mimic the voices, and physically act out their favorite scenes. At one school's football game, an entire grandstand full of kids erupted into the theme song from a Domino's Pizza ad.

Commercials starring Shaquille O'Neal are rerun whenever someone like Jason Matthews signs a yearbook as "Shaq Matthews." One girl, who dreamed about a McDonald's commercial, carefully sorted out the discrepancies between her dream and the "reality" of the commercial. A Big Mac, however, stars in both.

One ad shows a couple seated on an airplane for two nanoseconds. Months after this ad had stopped running, students recalled the plane's seats as "red with little blue squares that have arrows sticking out of them." When I asked Alex to evaluate a shampoo commercial that contained the line "Gimme a break," he sang the correct words - but to a tune that advertises another product, Kit Kat candy bars.

When students discussed an ache medicine they had just seen in a commercial, they referred to the product by its name. Minutes later, one student substituted the phrase "washing your face" for the product's brand name. Nobody noticed that the advertised ointment somehow became the same thing as cleanliness.

Pepsi's "It's Like This" commercials - crafted to look like Channel One's public service announcements - intersperse a few closeup shots of colorful Pepsi cans between black-and-white scenes of kids talking to someone off camera. Of the 29 students I talked to in one day about this ad, only 12 thought it was a commercial. The other 17 students defined it as purely news or a combination of news and advertising, while seven could not decide. Most students insisted that "real kids like us" appeared in the ad, because, as one girl emphasized, "It just feels real!" One boy thoughtfully concluded, "It's not really a commercial - it's just a commercial sponsored by Pepsi."

Evan enlisted the help of his grandmother to save up $160 to buy Nike basketball shoes endorsed by Michael Jordan. …

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Flavor Crystals as Brain Food: Unplug TV Commercials in Schools
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