Students from Massena to Montauk, from Plattsburgh to Poughkeepsie just took the New York State English exam. The exam, created by the education giant, Pearson, featured passages and questions that required the test-taker to be able to comprehend and analyze them. This was no small feat. The passages, like one about a man fishing for a screwdriver with a magnet, and a story about a busboy cleaning up soda, challenged students throughout the state. But the test had one feature that shocked this test-taker and surely others who noticed it: product placement.
The “busboy” passage in the eighth grade test I took was fictional, written about a dishwasher at a pizza restaurant. In it, the busboy neglects to notice a large puddle of root beer under a table that he clears. His irate employer notifies him about the mess, and he cleans it up. It seems alright at first glace. However, the root beer was referred to at one point as Mug™ Root Beer. It was followed by a footnote, which informed test-takers that Mug™ was a registered trademark of PepsiCo. The brand of soda, the type of soda, and, come to think of it, the exact beverage was not necessary to the development of the story, nor was it mentioned in any of the confusing and analytical questions following the passage.
So why was the brand and trademark included? Did the New York State Department of Education, which regulates the tests, receive any payment for these references to trademarked products? “No one was paid for product placements,’’ Antonia Valentine, a spokeswoman for the department, told me in an interview. “This is the first time we have had 100 percent authentic texts on the assessments. Any brand names that occurred in them were incidental and were cited according to publishing conventions.” She added that only in some cases unrelated to product placement – when passages were not in the public domain – did the state pay for permission to use passages. There was, in the same story that cited Mug™ Root Beer a mention of a Melmac™ dish. It played an equally unimportant role in the passage.
Non-fictional passages in the test I took included an article about robots, where the brands IBM™, Lego®, FIFA® and Mindstorms™ popped up, each explained with a footnote. I cannot speak for all test takers, but I found the trademark references and their associated footnotes very distracting and troubling.
According to Barbara Kolson, an intellectual property lawyer for Stuart Weitzman Shoes, “The fact that the brands did not pay Pearson for the ‘product placement’ does not mean that the use is not product placement.” To the test-takers subjected to hidden advertising, it made no difference whether or not it was paid for. The only conclusion they (and this test-taker) made is that they could not be coincidental.
The effect of advertising on children is a hotly debated subject. Studies show that children are more susceptible than adults to advertising. The American Psychology Association recommends legislation restricting ads directed towards children. In Maine, for example, the advertising in schools of “Foods of Minimum Nutritional Value,” or FMNV, is prohibited. Following the same logic, shouldn’t state tests also exclude references to trademarked products that eighth graders find appealing, even tantalizing, like Mug™ root beer, or Lego® toys?
Why would Pearson, the world’s largest for-profit education business, include gratuitous references to trademarked products in its tests? Pearson did not answer my e-mailed messages requesting comment. [Pearson did issue a general statement, which you can read after this article.]
The company, which has a five-year, $32 million contract with New York State to produce standardized tests, should have been more responsible and reproduced texts that did not include trademarked – and highly recognizable – products.
Additionally, why would New York State permit these tests to create a captive market for products, like soda, that lead to obesity and other health problems in children? Arguably, New York State taxpayers have paid for the ads in their children’s state tests, one way or another.
Students in grades 3-8 are required by New York State to take standardized tests annually. No students should be required, however, to take tests that subject them to hidden advertising. Clearly the trademarked products mentioned throughout the exam had no relevance to the stated goals of testing students’ reading comprehension and analytical skills. Surely Pearson can afford to edit standardized tests and remove all mention of trademarked products.
Pearson has been under fire for bribing state officials with free trips to Singapore and elsewhere, so I wouldn't be shocked to find out that they have been less than honest in their explanation of how the trademarking showed up in the tests.
The same goes for NYSED officials - remember, the last NYSED Commissioner, David Steiner, was one of the officials who took the Pearson free trips.
There needs to be an independent investigation of how the product placement got into the tests.
Who signed off on that?
Why did the Regents and the NYSED okay the tests with product placement and trademarks in them?