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Bus ads create a storm


Ron Barnett

The Greenville News
February 5, 2008


School buses are more than just vehicles that take children to school these days. In an increasing number of school districts across the nation, they're rolling advertisements.

Both inside, in the form of miniature billboards and special radio programming, and out, with full-length vinyl signs, commercial messages are being sent, and revenue is being received by cash-strapped school districts.

And what could be the biggest school bus advertising project in the country so far has been set in motion in South Carolina.

The state Department of Education, upon the request of several school districts, has contracted with a company to offer advertising inside school buses and is making the program available to any district that wants it.

School bus advertising has been controversial almost everywhere it's been tried, and it has met with mixed success.

"Let's just hang billboards on top of our buildings. Let's put commercials on the school district Web site," Greenville County school board member Chuck Saylors said, sarcastically. "Let's put an advertisement on top of the superintendent's car."

"At a certain point in time you've got to draw a line," said Saylors, who is also president-elect of the national PTA. "And I just think this is setting a bad precedent."

Greenville County Schools hasn't decided whether to go with the program.

Jim Metrock, president of Obligation Inc., a Birmingham, Ala.-based nonprofit child advocacy organization, says school districts are forcing advertising on a captive audience and giving children the impression that their school is endorsing particular products.

"That's not why taxpayers bought the school buses. That's not why they built the schools," he said. "These kids are not up to the highest bidder."

Metrock's main complaint is not over print ads but radio. A Massachusetts company called BusRadio says it is reaching more than 1 million students in 23 states with its program designed especially for school kids.

South Carolina also has agreed to let BusRadio pitch its program to school districts here.

The company surveyed bus drivers who use its system, and the majority of them said having the radio program on improved the behavior of the students.

Its program, produced daily and sent over the Internet every night, includes four minutes of paid ads and four minutes of public service announcements per hour, along with 52 minutes of "age-appropriate" music and contests.

It offers four versions of each day's program -- one for elementary school kids, one for middle school, one for high school and one that's for all ages.

In addition to catching 5 percent of the ad revenues, the district gets special radio equipment at no cost, plus a GPS system and hands-free 911 emergency systems for each bus.

Considering the volume of advertising already aimed at kids from TV, the Internet and even cell phones, it makes no sense to try to keep school buses as commercial-free zones, says Stuart Carpenter, owner of SAC Inc., an outdoor advertising company in Aiken. His company just signed the contract to offer school districts in South Carolina interior billboards for buses.

"If you completely block (advertising) away from them and this was the only place they see it, I could understand it," he said.

And with school districts expecting to rake in an estimated $2,100 per bus annually with his program, the payoff is well worth considering, he said.

"This is basically free money for them."

As lucrative as "indoor" advertising can be in school buses, exterior ads are 10 times as profitable, says Wendall Collins, owner of Miami-based School Bus Media, which sells ads in buses ridden by more than 225,000 students in Florida.

Florida doesn't allow exterior ads on school buses, but other states, including Colorado, Arizona and New York, do, according to the National School Advertising Network, of which Collins' company is a part.

Bob Riley, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Public Transportation Services, says billboards on the sides of buses distract drivers and could cause wrecks.

"The school bus is basically a marketing icon," he said. "People recognize a school bus as being yellow with black lettering and lights."

And they tend to drive more carefully around them, he said, while acknowledging that there's no data to prove that.

"There's just no history of having any safety issues with having signs on the side of buses, even transit buses," said Jim O'Connell of Media Advertising in Motion, an Arizona-based company that's working with the Miami firm to try to spread the business to school districts nationwide.

If there's a safety problem with billboards on school buses, it hasn't been seen at the Cherry Creek School District near Denver, which started putting signs on its fleet two years ago, said district spokeswoman Tustin Amole.

"Our school buses are the same ugly color as everyone else's are," she said. And the ads are only 4 to 6 feet long, so a school bus is still unmistakably a school bus, she said.

The district is using the money the ads raise to buy cameras and GPS systems for the buses, she said.

"School funding in Colorado is among the lowest in the nation," she said. "So we needed a way to be able to fund some things that we couldn't fund with our general fund."

A school district committee must approve each ad, to ensure they're "in keeping with community standards" and supportive of education, she said.

Billboards on buses have become "pretty popular" with folks around the Agua Fria Union High School District in Avondale, Ariz., said Superintendent Dudley Butts.

"It's going well," he said. "I wouldn't say that it's an overwhelming success, but we do have a few ads that we run."

South Carolina won't allow billboards on the outside of buses, said Donald Tudor, director of transportation for the state Department of Education.

Its new program gives each school district the opportunity to decide whether to use ads at all and to screen each one.

Experiments with school bus advertising haven't always been successful.

Nat Harrington, chief information officer for Palm Beach (Fla.) Schools, said his district tried running ads in 30 to 35 buses for about six months, but the program didn't prove to be cost-effective, so it was dropped.


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