Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"The Schwartz be with You!" (you too, Harry Potter)

As anyone who has seen Spaceballs should remember, "The Schwartz" is the "mystical power" of merchandizing. However, while for Mel Brooks the power of The Schwartz was best invoked in movie theater lobbies and toy stores, the publisher of the Harry Potter books has decided to summon the spell of The Schwartz in elementary school classrooms. As Motoko Rich reported in today's New York Times, this is raising more than a few eyebrows:

Scholastic Inc., the children’s publisher of favorites like the Harry Potter, Goosebumps and Clifford series, may be best known for its books, but a consumer watchdog group accuses the company of using its classroom book clubs to push video games, jewelry kits and toy cars.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy group based in Boston, said that it had reviewed monthly fliers distributed by Scholastic last year and found that one-third of the items sold in these brochures were either not books or books packaged with other items.

Based on a review of brochures in Scholastic’s Lucky Club for children in second and third grade, and its Arrow Club for fourth through sixth graders, the group said that 14 percent of the items were not books, while an additional 19 percent were books sold with other trinkets like stickers, posters and toys.

Susan Linn, director of the campaign, said she had received complaints from parents who were concerned that their children were being sold toys, games, makeup and other items under the guise of a literary book club that is promoted in classrooms.

“Marketing in schools is a privilege and not a right,” Ms. Linn said in an interview. “Scholastic is abusing that privilege.”

The campaign’s review identified products like the M&M’s Kart Racing Wii video game, the “American Idol” event planner and a Puppy Pals Origami Kit. But the brochures also included products like a set of Spiderwick Chronicles books that came with a poster, or “Mad About Math: Brain Busters Math Games,” a book of math puzzles that comes with a board game.

Last fall the campaign took credit for having persuaded Scholastic to discontinue selling picture books based on the overtly sexy Bratz dolls in any of its school book clubs or fairs this school year. At the time, Scholastic said its decision was influenced as much by dwindling sales as it was by the campaign’s push.

Rich also published excerpts from a response statement released by Judy Newman, president of Scholastic Book Clubs. However, it was interesting to see the ways in which Newman evaded the most direct of the accusations from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Indeed, to this reader the rhetoric was highly reminiscent of the tactics that cigarette companies used to engage each time another medical report emerged about the connection between smoking and cancer. Thus, while Newman argued that, whatever merchandizing strategies are being applied, the only important point is that kids are reading, Linn was ready with a counterargument:

The message that children get when books are marketed with other items is that a book in and of itself isn’t enough. And what it does is encourage children to choose books based not on the content but on what they get with it.

What is particularly disconcerting about this report is the implication that selling several highly successful series of books to the youngest audience of readers is not enough, at least to the Scholastic bean-counters. It has been a while since I have written about the "dangerous illusion" of "top-dog thinking;" but this story reminds us that, even in economic conditions where every business is struggling for survival, there still seems to be a drive to be at the top of the heap of survivors. Where Scholastic is concerned, such top-dog thinking apparently trumps the more laudable goal of cultivating literacy at the earliest possible age. From this point of view, our current crisis in education involves more than the dwindling budgets of the schools; it also entails the extent to which businesses that are supposed to serve those schools have chosen instead to foster that addiction to consumerism that has been such an effective distraction of student minds and so instrumental in the economic crisis now impacting those budgets.

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