Don Draper and How Not to Use Certain Words in Advertising
By Denis Smith

If Mad Men’s Don Draper were living in Ohio today and watching the latest commercials promoting some charter schools, he would no doubt be pleased to see how advertising agencies have mastered the art of designing an effective message for their intended audiences.

Draper, the guru of Madison Avenue’s Sterling Cooper Draper Price, will be disappearing from the small screen in the next several weeks, while charter school ads will not. In fact, as the pace of school privatization picks up in Ohio and across the nation, we can expect to see even more ads designed to persuade parents to enroll their children in one of these schools.

Note that I didn’t use the term charter school again.  More on that in a moment.

An ad by K12 Inc. touted the availability of “online school programs powered by K12.” The same ad informed its audience that online learning at its schools was a “public school option,” that they were “now accepting enrollment for grades K-12” and that parents should note that the school was “tuition free.”

Another online school ad, this one promoting Ohio Connections Academy, featured an engaging girl named Madison, informing viewers that she was first enrolled in Connections as a 7th grader and is now exploring her higher education options. In the commercial, Madison says that she “went to an online school, Connections Academy.” The ad ends with a summary statement: “Connections Academy, the tuition-free, online public school.”

Public school option. Tuition free. Online public school. To make sure that I was hearing these commercials accurately, I used the DVR to rewind and replay them several times to see if I’d missed something.

I don’t think so.

Could it be that the commercials promoting these tuition-free, public school option, online schools won’t use the terms “charter school” or “public charter school” with their audiences? If so, why is that?

A quick search of the Columbus Dispatch website might have provided the answer. Using the simple search term “charter schools” yielded these parts of headlines from Dispatch stories that go back to 2012 and contain some gripping descriptors.  Failed promise, reform, abuse, unauditable, failures,  tougher rules, increase accountability, oversight, transparency and state investigation were only some of the terms found from that newspaper website – one that happens to be very pro-privatization at that. (With such descriptors, what terms would the Dispatch headline writers use if it were very anti-charter?)

It’s no wonder that in their television advertising, K12 and Connections avoid use of the word charter. With story after story appearing about nepotism, conflict-of-interest, non-citizen board members, creative accounting, theft of public funds, padded enrollment figures, inflated administrative salaries, profit rather than student-focus, and a host of other shameful practices, ordinary citizens might see the term charter school and think of … radioactivity. As in Chernobyl, so stay away, far away.

But wait – we’re not dealing with radio activity but with slick, appealing television advertising. Radio days, but not radioactivity, are long gone, and the allure of television is all-powerful, particularly for the charter school industry.

K12 Inc., for example, traces its origins with a former conservative icon, William Bennett, the former secretary of education who served as the company’s CEO, and Michael Milken, erstwhile “junk bond king”, late of Wall Street, an early investor in the company.

If it’s not Madison Avenue in charterland, it’s Wall Street.

Yes, Wall Street. This Wikipedia summary might refresh our memory. “Milken was indicted for racketeering and securities fraud in 1989 in an insider trading investigation. As the result of a plea bargain, he pled guilty to securities and reporting violations but not to racketeering or insider trading. Milken was sentenced to ten years in prison, fined $600 million, and permanently barred from the securities industry by the Securities and Exchange Commission. His sentence was later reduced to two years for cooperating with testimony against his former colleagues and for good behavior.”

After his release from prison, the ever-nimble Milken saw a new opportunity – the then fledgling charter school business. K12 Inc. is but one of several post-prison Milken adventures, along with KinderCare Learning Centers, the nation’s largest daycare chain.

In the case of Connections Academy, many observers worry about the behavior of its parent company, Pearson Education, a British-owned publishing and testing behemoth that operates in 70 countries. Pearson, for example, is the developer of the PARCC tests used around the country that are the current focus of a parent opt-out movement that continues to grow. Critics of these tests question the construction and validly of the assessments, along with the inordinate amount of time schools need to spend for test preparation. And – surprise – the schools also use books and materials developed by … Pearson.

Unlike traditional public schools, the American people are slowly beginning to realize that with for-profit, corporate-designed national charter school chains, their very DNA is an amalgam of Wall Street and Madison Avenue, with many of the players in these companies being veterans of one or both. That fact might go a long way in explaining why the language chosen for television advertising is carefully tested. And tested again. It’s no coincidence that Marshall McLuhan’s classic, Understanding Media, was published in 1964, the very time period for Mad Men and Sterling Cooper Draper Price.  And just like school kids, ad execs and copywriters do their homework.

So the lesson here with charterland advertising is that it’s not about the language you use. It’s more about the language and words you don’t use. After all, language can be profane. Provocative. And radioactive.

Ask Don Draper. He knows.



Denis Smith is a retired public school administrator who has worked as a charter school consultant for an Ohio charter school sponsor organization and as a staff member in the Ohio Department of Education’s Office of Community Schools.  As such, he is a charter school watchdog and has also served as a director of communications for several organizations.