The Lorax — that squat orange creature Dr. Seuss created to speak for the trees — is now hawking SUVs at elementary schools across the land.
The sales pitch is part of the National Education Association’s “Read Across America tour — Driven by Mazda,” which arrived at Alexandria’s James K. Polk Elementary School on Tuesday.
It was a hybrid event: a celebration of reading, a fundraiser for public-school libraries, and an opportunity to market Mazdas to the pint-size set. While they don’t buy many cars themselves, they have direct access to parents who do.
“I track school advertising for a living,” said Josh Golin, associate director of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “This is among the most outrageous examples of any school advertisement program I’ve ever heard of.”
At Polk Elementary on Tuesday, more than 100 kindergartners and fourth- and fifth-graders crowded into the multipurpose room for a rendition of Seuss’s classic environmentalist tale.
The kids listened as the little furry Lorax tried, furiously and fruitlessly, to defend his beloved Truffula Trees and Brown Bar-ba-loots from being destroyed by the Once-ler, that greedy Thneed magnate.
Afterward, a Mazda representative — Dan Ryan of the government relations office — stood up.
He unveiled an oversized $1,000 check meant to help beef up the school’s library collection. “We think reading is very important,” Ryan said. The audience cheered.
Ryan then told the kids they could help raise up to a million dollars for other schools’ libraries — and qualify for a sweepstakes entry (trip for four to Universal Studios).
All they had to do was persuade their parents to go to the nearest Mazda dealership for a test-drive.
For every person who test-drives a car — and brings in a special certificate, which students received at school Tuesday — Mazda will donate $25 to the NEA’s foundation for public schools.
Ryan told his rapt audience that Mazda’s latest models get great gas mileage — at 35 miles to the gallon, the CX-5 is the most efficient SUV on American highways, he said.
“That’s the kind of car we think the Lorax would like to drive,” he said.
Shortly thereafter a very lovable-looking Lorax emerged from stage right and the kids — many of them wearing homemade striped Cat in the Hat hats — erupted in squeals.
The Lorax waved and doled out hugs. The kids serenaded him with a song.
And then everyone was ushered outside to see two cars up close — a Mazda 3 sedan and a CX-5 sports utility vehicle, both specially painted with Lorax scenes and both with what Mazda has termed “Truffula Tree-approved SKYACTIV® TECHNOLOGY.”
The Mazda-NEA tour is visiting schools in 20 cities around the country. Each school gets a visit from the Lorax, a $1,000 donation from the car company and a request to join in the test-drive fundraising effort.
“It’s absolutely jaw-dropping that they’re doing this,” Golin said. ”To have a Mazda representative basically telling children to go lobby their parents for their car is just a complete misuse of what school time is for.”
NEA sees the situation differently. These are tough times for public education. Schools everywhere are struggling to pay for necessities — including library books — and here’s Mazda offering up to a million dollars, with only minor strings attached.
“The ‘ask’ we are making is to test drive the car, not necessarily to buy it,” NEA spokeswoman Dana Dossett wrote in an e-mail. “Once people learn that by simply test driving a car, they can raise $25 for their public school library and libraries nationwide, they gladly participate. We’re ‘marketing’ a great cause that will have a direct benefit to students.”
In an interview, Mazda’s Dan Ryan addressed a reporter’s request to reconcile the Lorax’s save-the-earth message with his new role as a salesman for fossil-fuel-dependent cars.
“We think these are really good environmentally friendly technologies,” Ryan said, again highlighting the vehicles’ miles-per-gallon stats. “The kind of thing that the Lorax would actually be interested in.”
The NEA-Mazda fundraising drive is a prelude to the union’s Read Across America event, an annual celebration of books and storytelling that happens every year on March 2 — Dr. Seuss’s birthday.
This year, March 2 is also opening day for the Universal Pictures movie version of “The Lorax,” creating a new buzz for the pudgy little eco-hero, who’s been around since 1971. Movie posters were tacked to the walls at Polk Elementary on Tuesday, and the kids were shown a trailer.
Outside the school, hundreds of kids — including many who hadn’t been privy to the Lorax reading event — filed past the two Mazda vehicles on display.
Some reached out to touch the cars. A few kneeled to have their photographs taken. Others erupted into a spontaneous chant. “Lorax car, Lorax car, Lorax car!” they said.
One of their classmates quietly objected.
“The Lorax doesn’t drive a car,” he said.