Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
By Ruth Conniff and Nick Surgey
Grom Social, a new social media site for kids, is bursting with cuteness and commercial appeal—from the freckled 13-year-old listed as its founder, Zach Marks, to the cheerful cartoon characters on the site.
During a lunch-time presentation at Freedom Fest 2014 in Las Vegas, Zach's dad Darren explained that Grom not only allows kids to connect with friends and learn valuable lessons, it promotes a wholesome anti-bullying message and is safe, since parents monitor every click. But, best of all, according to Darren Marks, Grom is poised to cash in big by marketing products to children and parents alike, and by transforming public-education funds into profits for investors.
Walmart is in talks with Grom about advertising, the senior Marks told prospective investors in Las Vegas this month. And, the site will soon be pushing products using the subtly persuasive art of product placement and its cast of adorable cartoon avatar characters. Launched eighteen months ago, Grom has grown to more than a half million users. It is "an advertiser's dream,” Darren Marks said in Las Vegas.
Grom’s most significant partner to date is Florida Virtual Schools—the biggest provider of online classes in the nation.
Florida Virtual Schools (where Zach Marks and two of his siblings happen to be enrolled) has entered into a ten-year partnership with Grom to market a 3-D video game—newly launched on the Grom site this week—to teach math to fifth- through eighth-grade students. Students will be able to receive school credit after completing the game. The production costs, totaling $475,000, was paid entirely by Florida Virtual Schools, which will promote Grom to the 2.2 million children that use its services.
"This will be the first form of monitizing our company," Darren Marks told the rightwing crowd assembled in Vegas.
Florida Virtual Schools runs on public funds. It is fully funded through a line item in the Florida state budget. It receives additional public funds by charging local school districts when students enroll in online courses. It also sells its virtual wares to students outside the state for a $400 per semester fee.
But the big money, Darren Marks told prospective investors in his presentation, will come through merchandizing.
Teen star Kendall Schmidt has signed an exclusive contract with Grom to post a weekly column, he said, and will push Grom to his 3 million followers on Twitter and Facebook, for which he will be paid $100,000 a year, plus an “equity grant” based on performance.
MTV2 taped a segment on Grom and the Marks family for its show “Jobs that Don’t Suck.” And the Marks family appeared on Disney Interactive, Grom’s investor materials reveal, at the Grom Pound—the family compound that includes Grom headquarters, a motocross track, a six-foot half-pipe, a quarter pipe, pool, and trampoline.
The family itself is a big part of the Grom sales pitch.
Each member is depicted by a cute avatar in the Grom prospectus.
Meet Zach’s mom, “Sarah the trainer,” a certified doula and childbirth educator, as well as a triathlete, personal trainer, and mother of six.
Zach’s dad, Darren, is a former competitive body builder, competitive surfer, motocross rider, and entrepreneur.
Zach’s siblings include his brother, “Luke the Surfer,” his sister, Caroline, who won the U12 Girls United States Surfing Championships, six-year-old competitive surfer Dawson, and “Jack the Gamer,” who dreams up games for the Grom site.
Even two-year-old Victoria is said to be “constantly talking about Grom,” according to Grom's investor materials.
If Grom is successful, you may be seeing a lot more of the whole family, as they realize their dream of cashing in on education privatization.
Zach and Darren Marks came to the annual Freedom Fest conference seeking investors. Other exhibitors at the conference included the Charles Koch Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Heartland Institute, and Americans For Prosperity.
Welcome to the brave new world of education privatization, where there is money to be made by cashing in on kids, and public funds used to pay for kids’ education can be transformed into profits.