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School Ads: No Sale

Orlando Sentinel says schools should say no to in-school advertising

Orlando Sentinel
September 22, 2009

Imagine your child takes the Florida Comprehensive Aptitude Test and finds this blurb: The FCAT is brought to you by the makers of Red Bull.

Or when you drop off your child at school, you spot orange-sashed safety patrols sporting sandwich boards touting Brinks home-security systems.

Or while students are taking calculus notes, they're making mental notes to eat at Chili's — just as the neon billboard near the blackboard urges.

Such troublesome scenarios could be coming to a Central Florida school district near you. Desperate to patch yawning budget holes, school officials strongly are considering the noxious notion of throwing students to the marketing wolves by selling ad space on everything from gymnasiums to school Web sites.

They should scrap those plans.

Yet, some districts couldn't wait to get in position to cash in the potential marketing jackpot. Already the Orange County school district over the summer set up a marketing operation to manage opportunities. Osceola and other districts statewide are kicking the idea's tires.

We understand why school officials might be tempted by easy advertising money, given the millions in budget shortfalls from declining state revenues and a Legislature with a historically tight fist when it comes to education. Already, Orange, Seminole, Osceola, and Volusia counties are pocketing at least $11,500 a year from Bright House Networks for exclusive rights to broadcast Friday night football and other sports.

Toss in, say, pop-up ads on school Web sites, and a district like Orange, whose newly altered policies on in-school advertising now blesses Web-site ads, could potentially rake in thousands of dollars.

But administrators are mining fool's gold — toxic for students and an untenable quid pro quo for schools.

Advertisers realize the value of schools in selling their wares. Today's kids boast fat wallets. The 8- to 12-year-olds known as tweens, for instance, wielded $43 billion in spending power in 2008, and influenced billions more in family spending choices. Moreover, kids are sponges for ad campaigns that build brand loyalty.

Schools are the Holy Grail: brimming with a captive audience of impressionable kids. It's ironic that school districts that gnashed their teeth over President Obama's recent pep talk, fearing his supposed agitprop would condition a captive audience, now are matter-of-factly considering giving the keys to merchandise peddlers. Talk about indoctrination.

That's why last year we urged the Seminole School Board to kill Bus Radio, the prerecorded, commercial-filled music programming for school-bus riders.

Of course, it's been years since schools were the commercial-free zones that gave kids a haven from the constant advertising bombardment. Marketers long ago stuck their noses under the tent by sponsoring educational resources, and school events, or inking exclusive fast-food or soft-drink deals.

Harmless? We've watched the collateral damage of those soda and snack deals in the expanding waistlines and rising health bills for prematurely diabetic kids.

Still, poverty spurs desperation. Cash-strapped Volusia, for instance, has thrown up its hands, debating the type of advertising and marketing and where to place it.

"Everybody is talking about creating new revenue," said Wayne Blanton, director of the Florida School Boards Association, in justifying the money grab. "We have a business to run, and we are going to have to look at this."

Where does it end? Stamping the Geico gecko on cheerleaders' outfits? Sewing a Nike swoosh on Osceola school uniforms? Pop-up golden arches in kindergartners' textbooks?

Schools need to stick to reading, writing, and arithmetic. Not retailing. Like New Coke, this is an idea that's hard to swallow.





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