Archive for April, 2009

I had to step over quite a few things to get up on this particular soap box.  From my perch up here I will tell you why school pictures make me hopping mad.  But when I’m standing down on the ground, I must admit to liking them.

I like the oversized envelopes that come home a month after Picture Day.  I like the ease with which I can mail this progeny of images off to my scattered family.  I like the enrichment activities paid for by kickbacks from the photo companies (a small sum for each child photographed).  And, I like the warm fuzzy feeling I get from this traditional way of chronicling our children’s lives, year after year.


To get up on my soap box, I had to push aside the expectant relatives, I had to toss my youngsters’ smiling faces into the nearest trash can, I had to overlook the hundreds of dollars of extra funds for my school collecting in the gutter, and hardest of all I had to brush off that stubborn warm fuzzy feeling, clinging like a burr to my jacket.


So, now I’m here, and what, you may ask, is the big deal?  I haven’t always been so wrought-up over this issue.  In years past, I dutifully purchased school pictures believing it to be an obligatory rite of passage through parenting: how could you not?  


I became more uneasy last spring when I was filling out the newly arrived order form and I realized I’d already done it that year.  What I thought was an annual event had somehow evolved into a biannual event: fall pictures and spring pictures.  I put the form in the recycling.


Then, a month later, my kids arrived home bearing enormous envelopes stuffed with modern photo processing run amok: big pictures, little ones, medium-sized ones, and sizes in between, refrigerator magnets, bookmarks, and keychain tags, all adorned with their sweet little faces.  


Apparently the arrangement for spring pictures is that orders are not taken in advance, all kids are photographed, and all kids are sent one of the most expensive package options.  Families pay for what they wish to keep and send the rest back.


Now I was irked.  What a staggering amount of waste is involved in creating all of this stuff only to have much of it sent back and trashed.  Most fridge magnets are made from PVC plastic, which releases dioxins (highly toxic and carcinogenic compounds) during manufacturing and upon incineration.  


And, what an incredibly aggressive marketing strategy it is to send out all this material and innocently suggest that it can just be mailed back.  Have you ever tried to mail back a cute photo of your kid?


Why, I began to wonder, do we even have school pictures?  Aside from the class photo, school photos have nothing to do with school or with educating children.  While our teachers struggle to cram too much required material into the school year, we nonetheless find time for an outside company to take our kids out of class and market to them.


Imagine if shoe manufacturers were allowed to fit our kids for new shoes during school hours.  Convenient, yes, but is that what school time is for?  Why do photo companies have this lucrative sitting duck access to our kids (and their parents)?  


I came up with only one reason and I acknowledge that it’s not a trivial one: tradition.  Parents expect school photos; schools expect the extra funds.


But, we are sliding down the proverbial slippery slope.  School pictures are now taken twice a year, marketed very aggressively, and photo companies are not the only ones we’re letting in (think wrapping paper sales).  


The more time we give marketers in our schools, the more money they will come up with for our fundraisers.  It’s about as hard to turn down money for your school as it is to throw out your kid’s photo.  But, that’s the deal, and maybe it would be okay if we could just stop sliding.


Yet, it is not at all clear whose responsibility it is to stop the slide.  Should the marketers back off?  (But why shouldn’t they push as hard as they are allowed?)  Should schools not let them in?  (But how can they turn down the funds?)  Should parents refuse to participate?  (Why would they do that when it looks like a win-win situation: cute photos and money for the school?)


One of the culprits is that we have let ourselves be convinced that we can get something for nothing.  The truth is, however, that we pay for all of it.


We pay more for our photos so that the companies generate enough extra to give some back.  We pay for the lost class time in poorer educational outcomes.  We pay for our teachers’ salaries while they shuttle kids around to be photographed.


We pay for all the ways in which our natural environment is degraded by producing this mountain of material.  We pay for higher landfill costs to discard the leftovers.  Many of us now pay for a second round of pictures which we never intended to purchase.  


And finally, we pay for a potential loss of educational independence and integrity.  The non-profit Consumers Union reports that by 1993 corporate spending on marketing in schools had increased 5,400% over the amount spent thirty years back.  Why?  In the words of one of those corporations, “School is… the ideal time to influence attitudes, build long-term loyalties, introduce new products… and –above all– to generate immediate sales.”


Are we too naive to imagine that whoever comes up with the most money also winds up with some of the control?


After graciously hearing me out, the principal of our school now sends out a flyer informing parents that they can opt out of having their kids photographed in spring–to which I say, thank you, Mr. Scott, for digging your heels into the slippery slope.


For more information on marketing in schools, see “ Captive Kids: A Report on Commercial Pressures on Kids at School” at: http://www.consumersunion.org/other/captivekids/summary.htm.

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