Public schools have faced a myriad of challenges during the current economic slowdown, with budget cuts forcing everything from firing faculty to cutting programs. To help alleviate the financial pinch, some schools are turning to commercialism to make ends meet. By selling advertisements on scoreboards, school buses and even student lockers, school districts are able to gain enough income to make up for some of their budget shortfalls. However, this practice is a controversial one, as parents and community members ponder whether advertising in and around schools is sending the right message to students. We’ll take a look at both sides of this heated issue.
A History of School Advertising
Selling advertising on school buses began nearly two decades ago in Colorado, and it quickly spread to other states like Texas, Arizona and Massachusetts. According to a report in the New York Times, Utah became the latest state to allow the practice, signing a bill to allow school bus advertising just one month ago. New Jersey also joined the pack this year, signing a law in January. The ads on buses can generate a significant amount of revenue, with advertisements in the prominent location selling for as much as $150,000 to $250,000, according to the Ad Nauseum blog posted by the New York Law School.
Although school bus advertising has been revving for some time, it is not the first bout of commercialism to hit public schools across the country. Advertising in yearbooks and sports stadiums has actually been common practice for decades. However, advertising appears to be inching closer to the daily lives of students as buses, lockers and student lunch rooms become the popular venues for advertisers of all kinds. Today, some schools are looking at where and how much advertising they can accommodate, with floors, walls and ceilings of school buildings seemingly fair game for savvy advertisers and cash-strapped school administrators.
The Pros of School Advertising
On the plus side, advertising in public schools can be an effective money generator in an era of slashed budgets and reduced revenue. Although the amount received from advertising can be small in relation to the massive budget shortfalls some school districts face, most administrators agree that every little bit helps. The funding from a school bus ad, for example, might make the difference between new textbooks or the ability to keep an art or music teacher for the following school year.
Valery Lynch, a fourth-grade teacher in Texas, told the New York Times, “If the alternative is huge classroom sizes and losing teachers and losing qualified personnel, yes, this seems like something we should consider. But I know it’s a bag of worms, and people are going to ask, ‘What’s next? An ad on a classroom clock?’”
Paul Stremick, Centennial school superintendent in Minnesota, says his district is looking at advertising on school lockers and other school property to help make a dent in the district’s current $3.6 million in cuts. Stremick told the Star Tribune, “I hate to say it’s all about the money, but it probably is. Still, we want to keep the students’ interests in mind.” That means schools would be able to turn down advertising that they believed would not be suitable for the children they serve.
Other proponents of school bus advertising have pointed out that the ads on the bright yellow buses are primarily targeted to the drivers on the road, not the students inside the vehicles. Bryan Nelson, a Republican state representative from Florida, told the Times, “School bus advertising is not for the kids in the bus, but for the cars around the bus that see the advertising when they’re at a stop sign or driving down the highway. When you think about how many people are going to see those ads, you get a lot of exposure, so we can charge a premium price.”
Despite the revenue projections by some school districts, not everyone is in favor of commercializing the public school experience. Utah parent Megan Keller, who has a student in a Utah school that advertises sugary cereals in the school lunchroom, told the Times, “I have a five-year old who doesn’t understand what ads are. I don’t like that he thinks, ‘Oh, this is good because it comes from my school,’ and I’m having to explain to him why that’s not true.”
Josh Golin, the associate director for Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, agrees that advertising on public school property raises significant concerns. Golin told the News-Tribune, “Any time you have advertising on school property, it exploits a captive audience of students.” Golin added, “We are enormously sympathetic to the financial needs of so many schools right now.” However, Golin warns, “It is incredibly powerful to get an endorsement from a school for a product.”
Despite controversy surrounding the practice, advertising in schools continues. Whether it appears on scoreboards at athletic fields, plastered on the sides of school buses or wrapped around lockers in school halls, this ability to generate revenue is an attractive one today. From pizza parlors to dentists, merchants in communities nationwide are tuning into the advantages of reaching a larger market share by taking their message to public schools, while the institutions in question are finding that selling their spaces to the highest bidder may be the way to uphold education standards and preserve essential faculty and programs in an age of deep budget cuts and economic woes.