Targeting Children With Corporate Branding in Schools

Scrutinizing the motives behind Target’s Library Makeover Program.


| Winter 2014


I am the teacher-librarian in one of two San Francisco school libraries remodeled by the big-box chain Target, in partnership with the Heart of America Foundation (HOA). HOA, which coordinates corporate volunteer programs focused on literacy, provides a few different options, including the one Target picked: the READesign Library Makeover Program. On its website, HOA promises to handle all the details for the sponsoring partner, making the experience simple but meaningful: “As soon as we know your desired market, we do the rest.”

About 200 schools across the country have received a Target Library Makeover since 2007 and, judging by the photos available online, the libraries all look similar to the one at my school. Like those other libraries, The Story of Wal-MartThe Story of Starbucks, and The Story of McDonald’s are shelved with the nonfiction as part of the donated corporate-themed Built for Success series for children. Our bright, cheery elementary school library does not have red and white bull’s-eyes on the walls, however, unlike the Target-sponsored libraries I saw online. A visitor might not guess Target had anything to do with the remodeling, though the painted stripes on one wall look slightly big-box store-ish, if you ask me. The lack of Target logos in our library is no oversight; it is the result of tough battles fought at the district administrative level and a school district with an unusually firm anti-branding policy.

Not that the students weren’t branded.

On the second day of school that fall, as the Target School Library Makeover began, two famous NASCAR drivers arrived at my school with their Target-sponsored race car, fully covered in red and white bull’s-eyes. A “reading assembly” was held for the entire school on the play yard (a customized kickoff event is one of the options HOA offers its corporate partners as part of the makeover program). The NASCAR celebrities read a picture book to the students and then posed for pictures with each class in front of the race car. Some school district administrators attended this assembly, along with a sea of red-shirted Target employee volunteers. The district official with the challenging job of upholding the anti-branding policy was also there, and he told us to flip over the 250 red Target stadium cushions for the children so that the bull’s-eye logo faced down. It was a valiant effort but, in the midst of the red tents, the race car, the banners, the stage, and the many red Target shirts, having the cushions face down (for the few minutes they remained so) felt inconsequential.

This event was so exciting, fun, and out of the norm for the students that it clearly cemented a favorable impression of Target in their minds. Students talked and wrote about Target for the rest of the year. That first week of school, each child took home a bright red book bag with a giant bull’s-eye on it—full of free books marked with Target stickers. There were free groceries for the families from the local food bank, distributed in red Target shopping bags. I overheard children begging their parents to take them to Target. One mother told me that her first grader had arrived home from school after the NASCAR event and announced, “The guy said they wanted you to buy stuff at Target!” Things that have power in the world leave an impression, especially on children. That red and white bull’s-eye was a presence in our school for the entire year, even without being painted on the library walls.