Remember Our School's Motto: "And Now, A Word From Our Sponsors"

Thirteen years ago, at Greenbrier High School in Evans, Georgia, senior Mike Cameron's smart mouth got him in trouble.

What did he do? Did he talk about drugs and God, like that "Bong Hits For Jesus" kid? Oh, no. Mike did something far worse than promoting demon weed or disrespecting Christ: he risked offending Greenbrier High's corporate sponsor. Mike wore a Pepsi shirt on Coke Day. It earned him a suspension.

"I know it sounds bad — `Child suspended for wearing Pepsi shirt on Coke Day,'" said Gloria Hamilton, principal of Greenbrier High School in Evans, about 130 miles east of Atlanta, the world headquarters of Coca-Cola. `'It really would have been acceptable if it had just been in- house, but we had the regional president here and people flew in from Atlanta to do us the honor of being resource speakers. These students knew we had guests." Friday's Coke in Education Day was part of Greenbrier's effort to win a $500 local contest run by the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Augusta and a national contest with a $10,000 prize.

Gloria Hamilton — whom a person less couth than I might term a Coke whore — explained that Mike's behavior disrupted the school's mutually beneficial relationship with Coca-Cola, including its innovative curriculum:

In addition to the school picture, Greenbrier officials invited a Coke marketing executive to address economics students, had chemistry students analyze the sugar content of Coke and used a Coca-Cola cake recipe in home economics.

Later, students in math class learned how to calculate the amount of life insurance would be necessary to provide for their family if they died of diabetes.

Anyway, that was 13 years ago. We were barbarians. Surely modern educators have rejected the creeping attempts by various corporations to use schools as advertising platforms to captive audiences?

Well, maybe not. At Catawba Valley Community College, student Marc Bechtol was suspended and banned from campus for questioning the college's cozy relationship with a financial services company called Higher One. Marc didn't like how CVCC was hard-selling Higher One's cards and services, and didn't like how he became an immediate target of hard-sell marketing pitches for more products and services as soon as he signed up for one of the cards CVCC was pushing. He criticized the relationship on the school's Facebook page, engaging in some mild but obvious satire. It got him kicked out. Fortunately for him, FIRE is on the case, and CVCC president Garrett D. Hinshaw is looking at the sort of bad publicity that tends to make colleges (reluctantly) do the right thing.

Modern education is too much driven by money. It makes administrators do stupid things. Neither Coca-Cola nor financial services companies like Higher One has students best interest at heart. They are in it to make money, as they should be — that's their role. Should they be allowed to market? Sure. Should public schools act as their marketing arm? No. Should protecting their message from criticism be a legitimate goal of the schools? No.

CVCC leadership is about to get a short, sharp, embarrassing lesson. They deserve it.

Edited to add: Higher One's PR team is out and about on this topic.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. CTrees says

    Ethically or morally, of course this sort of thing shouldn't happen. The question is, how to structure regulations to prevent it.

  2. Josh M. says

    I can't for the life of me understand how school after school keeps on doing this, despite the flood of lawsuits that inevitably follow…and which they almost inevitably lose. One would think that boards of trustees would start to wisen up sooner or later to the fact that one of these incidents, if it gets enough publicity or they get spanked soundly enough in court, could cost them far more than the sponsorships or other arrangements they have.

    It really makes absolutely no sense.

  3. C. S. P. Schofield says

    Nobody with any grounding in the history of education should be surprised; it has always been possible – nay, easy – to get kicked out of school for bad-mouthing (or even being insufficiently appreciative of) the school Patron, or for not toeing the line generally. The big difference in our modern schools is the wide range of choice one has concerning Patrons. It USED to be pretty much limited to whatever the Official Church was.

    Which isn't to say we shouldn't ridicule schools that do this kind of thing.

  4. Marc says

    These schools were just doing their job: preparing students for life in the real world. Just look at some of the police interactions with the occupy wall street protestors. The government doesn't like it when you fuck with their corporate sponsors either.

  5. Joe says

    Wow, usually it's The Onion who writes this stuff before it happens. Score one for The Simpsons.

    Who can tell me the atomic weight of bolognium?

    Ooh … delicious?

    Correct. I would also accept snacktacular.

  6. marco73 says

    Sometimes the sponsorship can have unintended consequences. My daughter is a teacher at a public school. The school system has a contract with Pepsi. There used to be Pepsi machines at various locations at the school. But then the busybody school board decided that school children were too stupid to make their own choices in what beverages to purchase, so the school board decided that Pepsi could only sell fruit juice and water in the vending machines. Pepsi couldn't make any money doing that, so they took all the machines out of the schools. But since they have a contract with the school district, there are no replacement machines. There are large cages at various points around the school where there are no longer any machines. School children and teachers bring their beverages to school, so you still see kids running around with soda, just not bought at school.

  7. the other rob says

    The thing that strikes me about the Cameron case is that it speaks to Hamilton having a limited imagination – or just being limited in general, frankly.

    If you've made it up the corporate ladder to Regional President at Coca Cola, you're not going to be phased by one kid wearing a Pepsi shirt. More likely, you'll turn it to your advantage, with an off the cuff quip about how you knew Pepsi were struggling, but you hadn't realised that they were in such dire straits that… [insert punchline here].

    No big deal, except that the limited Hamilton was clearly incapable of imagining such a response and projected the Coke guy's response as being what hers would be. This seems to be a common element of many of these stories about outrageous behaviour by school officials – the assumption that everybody is as limited as they are.

  8. says

    That's a good point, other rob. I've always thought that many of the cases where schools improperly suppress student religious expression (forbidding them from reading Bibles, etc.) comes from a phenomenon like that: limited minds hear a steady drumbeat of "OMG teh evil ACLU will sue you if you allow a Bible on school grounds" from various talking heads, and then project accordingly.

  9. CTrees says

    @Joe: Daria also had an episode like this, with similar excesses. I have to give the nod to Daria for dressing the football players up in soda can uniforms, though.

  10. says

    Higher One may have their PR flacks out working on the case, but the link you provided suggests that their PR flacks are not doing a good job. Maybe they are in training for Brandlink Communications, home of Jose Martinez.

  11. Al says

    Actually, that reads more like they realized they can't get caught retaliating. The policy still stands.