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Advertising On School Buses? Not Buying It

Edward Fitzpatrick
Providence Journal
February 10, 2009

I’m not going to throw state Rep. Al Gemma under the bus. But I would like to put the brakes on his proposal to allow advertising on school buses.

Gemma, D-Warwick, introduced the bill to give school districts a way to raise money in the face of proposed state aid cuts.

Certainly, schools need help, and kids already see a lot of ads. You don’t have to be a Taubman Center pollster to know Chuck E. Cheese has high approval ratings amid the 4- to 8-year-old demographic. But I don’t want my sons getting on a school bus that looks like it’s in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The wheels on the bus — brought to you by the good people at Michelin? We’re better than that, aren’t we?

“School buses are such a powerful symbol of education,” said Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, based in Boston. “When we allow advertisers to advertise on school buses, we send this message that our schools are for sale and our children are for sale.”

Golin said, “It’s tragic we are not properly funding our schools, but we need to understand advertising is not free. The cost is delivering those children’s eyeballs to advertisers.”

Advertisers covet school buses because that space comes with the explicit endorsement of the school system, Golin said. And unlike TV spots, parents can’t turn off the bus ads, he said. Children already see hundreds of commercial messages a day, and “that’s all the more reason why schools need to be commercial-free zones,” he said.

Advertising doesn’t always generate a lot of revenue for schools, Golin said. For example, he said, students in Seminole County, Fla., received report cards in envelopes bearing Ronald McDonald’s image and the promise of a free Happy Meal for students with good grades. He said McDonald’s paid for the cost of the envelopes, which came to 6 cents per student.

Advertising messages can conflict with what schools are trying to teach children, Golin said. For example, he said a Massachusetts company, BusRadio, pipes music and ads into school buses, and one ad urged kids to watch the WB network that night. (Geometry homework or WB?)

So what ads would be on Rhode Island buses? If RIPTA buses are any guide, schoolchildren would be urged to spend their weekends playing the video slots at Twin River or to call a personal injury lawyer in case of a slip-and-fall on the playground.

Gemma said local school committees would ensure the ads are “discreet and appropriate.” He joked that Playboy centerfolds would not be acceptable. (Some teenage boys might disagree.) He said he could see Rhode Island philanthropist Alan Shawn Feinstein placing ads on the bus. Or, he said, there might be ads for local teams such as the Pawtucket Red Sox or national products such as Wheaties (just don’t put A-Rod’s picture on the Wheaties box).

Gemma said he wouldn’t favor soda ads. “It’ll rot your teeth out,” he said. But health food would be great. (Is the soy lobby listening?)

Gemma, 70, who once studied Egyptology at Brown University and now owns Gemma’s Auto Body Shop, has some good ideas. For instance, he just introduced a bill that would repeal the 1984 Retired Justice Trial Act, which allows people to hire retired judges to preside over secret civil trials.

But I don’t think the school bus ad idea makes the grade. If the rationale is simply that we need the money, what’s next? A home economics class sponsored by Betty Crocker? A driver’s ed class sponsored by Budweiser? A sex ed class sponsored by Viagra?

The cost of putting an ad on a school bus for nine months? $2,500.







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