Curiously worded test questions smell awfully like product placement

I take pride in writing a column for The Augusta Chronicle. But it’s nothing compared to the pride the good people at Kraft Foods take in delivering quality consumer products to families around the world.

See what I did there?

It’s my awkward first attempt at product placement. I figure, if everyone else is doing it, I might as well give it a shot. The idea is to get a free lifetime supply of macaroni and cheese. My kids love the stuff.

 

PRODUCT PLACEMENT is when a business pays to have its name, or one of its products, mentioned or shown in a movie or on a TV show. It happens in books, too. It’s been said that renowned 19th-century author Jules Verne very intentionally mentioned the names of particular shipping companies in his novels, but it’s not known whether he got paid for it.

But boy, people sure get paid now. By one estimate, two-thirds of advertisers engage in what’s also called “branded entertainment,” most often on TV shows. For example, ever notice how a lot of characters on shows use Apple laptop computers? That’s just the way Apple wants it.

You can’t watch a movie these days without seeing rampant product placement. A powerful example is the movie E.T. The producers approached the makers of M&Ms and asked if they’d like a cute alien eating their product in the film. For whatever reason, the M&M folks said no. But the makers of a new candy called Reese’s Pieces said yes – and sales of that candy skyrocketed within two weeks of the movie’s 1982 premiere.

I’m mentioning all of this to tell you about some really suspicious questions on New York’s Common Core standardized English tests.

 

AS IF YOU NEEDED another reason to look askance at Common Core, a new issue has cropped up. Apparently a lot of popular brand names have been making appearances in the test questions. In one question, a busboy failed to clean up some spilled root beer – but not just any root beer. It’s Mug brand root beer, a registered trademark of PepsiCo.

Deborah Poppe said the question confused her eighth-grade son. “‘Why are they trying to sell me something during the test?’” she quoted her son as saying. “He’s bright enough to realize that it was almost like a commercial.”

Barbie, iPods, Life Savers and Nike also have been making appearances.

Why?

Why mention brand names on kids’ tests? Why does the brand of the spilled root beer matter? How is that supposed to improve pupils’ minds?

You can write around any mention of a specific product. I could write a whole column about my iPod without calling it an iPod. Just call it an MP3 player or a portable media player. I can talk about my cell phone all day long without mentioning the brand (which, by the way, is Samsung, in case the company wants to upgrade my phone to the splendid Galaxy S5.)

See what I did there?

 

EDUCATION OFFICIALS say the brand mentions aren’t intentional. But come on. Isn’t this really product placement of some kind?

And if it is, is it paid? And if it is paid, who’s cashing the checks?

Not all product placement is bad for students. Sometimes, as The Wall Street Journal reported recently, it’s a boon.

In Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, drama students putting on a production of the musical Grease threw in a couple of casual mentions of the local Guys Pizza place in exchange for a $500 donation toward the production.

Melbourne High School in Florida changed the setting of a production of Romeo and Juliet to modern-day Seattle, in part to successfully win the sponsorship of a local Starbucks.

That makes good sense, and more power to them. Arts funding at the grade-school level is drying up as it is. Schools should be commended for seeking creative ways to help the arts enrich students’ lives.

Besides, that stuff is relatively small potatoes. Compare Guys Pizza with Heineken. The beer company shelled out $45 million for movie superspy James Bond to abandon his trademark martini and instead pop open a bottle of Heineken in the 2012 film Skyfall.

 

PRODUCT PLACEMENT isn’t going to go away. It’s much too lucrative. But if the Common Core folks in New York want to quell the murmurs about test questions potentially being a cynical manipulation of innocent schoolkids, just rewrite the questions. And when they’re done, maybe one of those school officials will go home to relax, and watch a movie in the stunning high resolution offered by a 65-inch Sony television.

See what I did there?

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