Captive Audience

Captive Audience

How Corporations Invaded Our Schools

By Catherine Gidney


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  • Canadian History of Education Association (CHEA/ACHÉ) Founders’ Prize for best English-language book, 2020 (Winner)

White Spot, a popular BC restaurant chain, solicits hamburger concepts from third and fourth grade students and one of the student’s ideas becomes a feature on the kids’ menu. Home Depot donates playground equipment to an elementary school, and the ribbon-cutting ceremony culminates in a community swathed in corporate swag, temporary tattoos, and a new “Home Depot song” written by a teacher and sung by the children. Kindergarten students return home with a school district-prescribed dental hygiene flyer featuring a maze leading to a tube of Crest toothpaste. Schools receive five cents for each flyer handed to a student. While commercialism has existed in our schools for over a century, the corporate invasion of our schools reached unprecedented heights in the 1990s and 2000s after two decades of federal funding cuts and an increasing tendency to apply business models to the education system. Constant cutbacks have left school trustees, administrators, teachers, and parents with difficult decisions about how to finance programs and support students. Meanwhile, studies on the impact of advertising and consumer culture on children make clear that the effects are harmful both to the individual child and the broader culture. Captive Audience explores this compelling history of branding the classroom in Canada.

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Captive Audience puts the emphasis right where it should be, leaving little doubt about who has taken over our schools and exposing their agenda. Gidney pulls back the corporate shroud to uncover the gnarly and debilitating ties between business and schooling. Our educational system is not autonomous, rather its every facet is increasingly beholden to and shaped by corporate capital. Painful and necessary reading that should be required for all educators and parents.”

– Randle W. Nelsen, author of Degrees of Failure: University Education in Decline

“Perhaps counterintuitively, our perception of public education and our policy choices are influenced by the education sector’s relationship with the corporate sector. What that means for education, for students, and for the public is documented in this thoughtful, detailed, and engaging book, which traces the evolution of the corporate classroom and the implications for public policy.”

– Erika Shaker, Director of education and outreach, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

“Those troubled by corporate sponsorship, commercial promotion, and the inculcation of consumer preferences in Canada’s public schools will welcome the evidence in Catherine Gidney’s Captive Audience. Her examination of corporate influence on public education raises questions—What purposes does schooling serve? How can equity be maintained?—that each generation must answer.”

– Charles Ungerleider, author of Failing Our Kids: How we are ruining our public schools

Captive Audience sounds an alarm that every teacher, student, and parent should read and heed.”

– Maude Barlow, Council of Canadians

“That we live in a consumer culture is increasingly evident. That this is problematic for education is increasingly incontestable. Tracing the history of school commercialism in Canada through the twentieth century, Captive Audience provides a historical account of how commercial interests sought to influence schools so as to create new consumers and promote a positive corporate image.”

– Trevor Norris, author of Consuming Schools: Commercialism and the End of Politics

Captive Audience is a comprehensive history of the normalization of commercialism in Canadian schools—engagingly written, and disturbing.”

– Larry Kuehn, director of research, BC Teachers’ Federation

“A brilliant exposé of the corporate exploitation of school children in Canada. This is a compelling and concerning account of corporate opportunism and the consequent manipulation of vulnerable children.”

– Sharon Beder, author of This Little Kiddy Went to Market

Captive Audience should be a wake-up call to parents, policy makers, and pundits alike. Gidney chronicles the rise and spread of a flawed business logic applied to education and the rampant and breathless quest for the latest corporate-sponsored fads, vividly illustrating neoliberalism’s structural exploitation of both students and teachers. Running schools like businesses has only solidified a hierarchy of moneyed interests promoting techno-gadgets, STEM, and job-skills idolatry at the expense of civics, the humanities, and the basic hard work required for learning. Captive Audience should be required reading for anyone interested in rejecting this corporate onslaught and instead developing schools as centres for human engagement and critical inquiry.”

– Deron Boyles, professor of philosophy of education, Georgia State University


1 The "Discriminating and Alert Teacher"?: The Early History of In-School Commercialism
2 "Education Is Too Important To Be Left to the Educators": The Rise of School-Business Partnership
3 Tapping the Educational Market: Computers in Classrooms
4 "It’s So Pervasive, It’s Like Kleenex": Schools—The Last Frontier of Advertising
5 Youth News Network or "You’re Nuts to Say No": The Struggle over Classroom Commercialism
6 "Building Brand Loyalty": Vending Machines, Fast Food Outlets, and Junk Food
7 "All We’re Trying to Do Is Help Youngsters": The Politics of Raising Funds