Stealth merchandising

Why is the venerable Scholastic book club company peddling cheesy toys in classrooms?

Published February 29, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Imagine. Your kid walks into her third-grade classroom tomorrow and the teacher is selling toys. She's handing out brightly colored flyers, covered with pictures of the toys you should buy. She's handing them directly to your kids. These little flyers -- well, hey, let's just speak English and call them advertisements -- these little four-page advertisements are chock-full of cute pictures of Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, the Rugrats, Pokimon, CatDog, Crazy Bones and various other hot commercial properties. You would die to possess these key chains, these diaries, these stickers, these weird little sets of weird little bits of plastic -- if you were 8.

Tell your parents, says the teacher to the kids, tell them that if they'll just buy you a few of these items, our school can get some for free. And then the teacher sends you a wheedling little letter, begging you to buy something, anything, because the school needs your help and because -- here's the kicker -- it's all educational.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Scholastic book clubs.

And you thought they sold books.

Well, sure they do! Books like the "Official Pokimon Handbook: Collector's Deluxe Edition" or the "Official Crazy Bones Collectors Guide." How about "The Superstars Datebook 2000" ("Get Organized! With Your Favorite Superstars!") or the "Official Nickellenium Scrapbook" ("Capture the past, present and future in this cool fill-in book about life at the beginning of the second millennium! With fun photos of the Rugrats, Wild Thornberrys, CatDog, and more!")?

Photos of the Rugrats? But the Rugrats don't exist. This is like a photo of Snow White, or Bigfoot. How about the Valentine Stationery Kit ("Each heart-shaped sheet folds into a secret valentine")? Well, it's made of paper, so it's sort of like a book. Or the "Sega Dreamcast Official Preview Guide" ("Here's everything you need to know about this new 128-bit gaming system!")?

Now, I work hard to hide the mere existence of Radio Shack from my kids. I hide Radio Shack the way some people hide the existence of porn stores. I think there should be a 12-step program just for children who play with hand-held video games. The last thing I need is a teacher handing my kids ads for Sega Dreamcast.

And my kids don't get Nickelodeon. One year of premium cable fees equals a pretty great camping vacation or a plane ticket to see family in London or San Francisco. Plus, it's snowing outside and I'd rather go play in the snow, or go bake cookies, than watch "Rugrats."

But say you like Nickelodeon. Say you just love those adorable little Rugrats. Say you're just a less uptight parent than I. OK. There are still so many objections to in-school product shilling, it's hard to know where to begin.

How about we start with the one-third of the kids in my middle-class public school district who have never ordered anything -- ever -- from Scholastic book clubs. They're the same kids who get a free school lunch. What don't they have? Money. What don't they own? Pokimon lunchboxes, Britney Spears notebooks, Tarzan snow boots.

But everybody else does.

At least the kids without money don't have to be present to witness the actual moment of acquisition as their friends buy this stuff at the mall. But the booty that Scholastic sells gets handed out right in the classroom or, at best, stacked in cubbies and lockers by well-meaning parents. Then everyone checks out one another's stuff on the playground. So now the same kids who can't afford all the mall crap have to stare at the in-school crap, too.

But, you might say, surely it isn't all crap. And you're right. There is plenty of real literature mixed in. We bought the boxed set of "The Chronicles of Narnia" last year, and we've also bought some cheap editions of great novels by classy kids authors like Katherine Paterson, E.L. Konigsberg and Natalie Babbitt.

But you have to look pretty hard for the good stuff. And it can look pretty drab to kids when it is displayed next to merchandising trinkets. I hate to have to play disapproving mean Mommy: "Sorry, kids, it's Madeleine L'Engle or nothing." And as Dan Richardson, father of two boys in fourth and second grade, says, "It's pretty hard to refuse when they're hard into 'Star Wars' right now and then there's the next installment of the novelized Jedi kids books and more assorted 'Star Wars' trash."

Doesn't the word "scholastic" mean educational? How did we get here?

Scholastic was founded in 1920 and, in that year, sold roughly $10,000 worth of magazines for high school students. Those magazines, distributed in the schools at 7 cents a copy, brought a contemporary sensibility into classrooms where most kids were reading 19th century essays and writing on slates. Many did not have their own books. How very modern, how very 20th century, the new weekly must have seemed!

And it was on the strength of these lively magazines that Scholastic built its popular book clubs, characterized by the brightly colored four-page ads that now, quite possibly, outnumber head lice in our nation's classrooms.

Eighty years after the founding of Scholastic Inc., the empire is headquartered in New York in a luxe SoHo office building. It's staffed by smart grads of top colleges and run by president, chairman and CEO Richard Robinson, the son of founder M.R. Robinson.

This giant, publicly traded company produces (or licenses) TV shows, software, book clubs, books, magazines, videos and online sites. It has lately been axing the very magazines that used to give its book clubs such credibility with teachers -- academically challenging classroom magazines like Agenda, Superscience Red and Math Power. Like everyone else in the big wide world of media, it is moving away from education and toward entertainment. But it's doing it in the classroom, where our kids are a captive audience.

Scholastic Inc., the publishing juggernaut that has bought up rival book clubs like Bantam Doubleday Dell's Trumpet, is currently the merchandising king of Goosebumps, the Baby-Sitters Club, Animorphs, Pokimon, Jedi-Aprentice, Dear America -- many of the same serialized lite chapter books its book clubs sell.

Say you forgive Scholastic's heavy-handed promotion of candy-pop supergroups or spanking-new computer software. Even those characters that start off in books get spun off. At its height, the Goosebumps series had 33 licensees producing over 1,000 Goosebumps products. As Robinson said in a 1995 interview, "It starts with a book, and you have to drive it out from the book." So while the book clubs appear to be selling books, the books themselves end up as mere advertisements for toys, pajamas and lunchboxes.

It would be naive to imply that this kind of merchandising, or "synergy" as they call it in the industry, is new or at all unique. It's not. As fewer corporations control entertainment and publishing, it becomes inevitable that everybody has fingers in one another's pies -- if there's anything out there that isn't just part of the same fantastic, totally nonnutritious infotainment pie.

With Scholastic-owned titles like "Animorphs" on Nickelodeon, "Dear America" on HBO and "Goosebumps" on Fox, it's hard to keep your eye on the ball. Who's zoomin' who?

But here's what's different, and what distinguishes the marketing tactics of Scholastic book clubs. It's the use of classrooms, of hardworking teachers, of scarce and much-needed parent volunteers and of cash-strapped school districts to shill for a major corporation. Surely, this ought to raise some eyebrows.

High school kids can perhaps distinguish between editorial and advertising, but certainly we can't expect elementary and junior high kids to make the same call. And it gets harder and harder for anyone to distinguish them as the lines blur. It's all "advertorial," anyway. What's next? A Disney store at the end of the lunch line? Skip the milk and go for Mickey.

How on earth did we get here?

Here's how: Money. The grinding poverty in which most of our schools operate is the nasty little secret behind the success of fund-raising gimmicks like Scholastic book clubs. Our nation's school boards, principals and teachers, hardworking and dedicated though they may be, are reduced to shilling for a major corporation because they're too poor to buy the stuff they need. They're desperate enough to sell their credibility for a mess of measly giveaway paperbacks.

But there are alternatives. Why not buy kids books at the local bookstore, which really needs your money to stay alive. Or borrow them from the library, where the children's rooms are looking a whole lot emptier than they used to. How about persuading your kids to donate some of their Pokimon key chain money to the library, to buy real, hardcover books, books that other kids then get to read, for free?

Because the single biggest problem about this approach to selling books is this: Kids are taught, early, to see books as just one part of a media-advertising continuum, perhaps less interesting than, but somehow vaguely related to, the TV shows, the toys, the CDs, the movies, the sneakers, the stickers, the games. And nowhere in there is there any respect for the book as, well, a book.

Our kids come to us already systematically ripped off by mall culture, by chain video stores, by fast-food calories, by endless TV. And as all kids secretly do, they long for our help in sorting it all out. They come, loud and awkward and demanding, to their parents, to their teachers, to all of adult culture, looking for wisdom and guidance.

And we pat them on the head and hand them the computer version of "Wheel of Fortune," a copy of "Merry Christmas, Rugrats," an interactive photo friendship poster, three watermelon-scented erasers and a free inflatable minibackpack.

By Shoshana Marchand

Shoshana Marchand is a freelance writer in New England.

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