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Don't hold children hostage to ads

 

Sen. W. Greg Rybert

Island Packet, Opinion
March 2, 2008

 

The State Department of Education recently announced plans to allow school districts to raise revenue by renting advertising space, visual and audio, on public school buses. My initial disbelief quickly gave way to my strong impetus to prohibit the commercialization of a space wherein children involuntarily spend sometimes up to three hours a day. Our children should not be the guinea pigs of Madison Avenue.

I filed legislation to prohibit the public school system from forcing children to hear or view advertising harmful to them or objectionable to their parents. Most parents steer their children away from destructive advertising. Parents, however, do not ride the bus to school with their children, and could not prevent their children from being forced to view a cartoon character selling them donuts or a computer generated salesman pitching the latest version of a seek and kill game. Why should parental protection stop at the school bus door?

New revenue for school districts need not come off the backs of our children. I heard, as a member of a legislative committee investigating student transportation funding in 2004, from private providers who offered solutions that cost less and increased service. I still have a letter from one such provider, dated September 2005, that offers South Carolina a fleet of new buses, their operation, maintenance and a seven-year replacement cycle for approximately $70 million per year. This cost pales in comparison to the $39 million we spent last year only to replace less than half the buses, not service them. Surely we would consider this before we start subjecting our kids to barkers for chewing gum.

Proponents of the advertising scheme paint it as a public-private partnership whereby an injection of the free market supports the provision of government services without additional cost to the taxpayers. The problem with the analogy, however, lies in the definition of "free." A free market marries a willing seller with a willing buyer, and the key to the efficient functioning of a free market is the ultimate ability for either party to walk away from the deal. The school bus ad proposal, however, pits a willing seller, the advertiser, against an entrapped buyer, the school child (and by extension their parents). This deal, in other words, looks a lot like the prison cafeteria--you'll get what we serve, and you'll like it.

The extension of this logic leads to ads on the front of the teachers' desks, on the locker doors, and finally on the hallway walls. Perhaps the principals and teachers could wear patch-emblazoned uniforms like NASCAR drivers, and before they speak to a PTA meeting they can thank all their corporate sponsors for their support.

The business model for companies that market to children relies upon a simple premise: children cannot discern as readily as adults so they fall prey more easily to smooth pitches and sparkling visuals.

And those business models reap a handsome reward. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) reports that, "From 1992 to 1997 the amount spent marketing to children shot from $6.2 billion to $12 billion. Today, marketers spend at least $15 billion a year targeting children."

The results are clearly worth it.

Children ages 4 to 12 made $30 billion in purchases in 2002, a remarkable increase from the $6.1 billion they spent in 1989.

Children ages 12 to 19 spent $170 billion in 2002, a weekly average of $101 per teen.

Children under 12 influence $500 billion of purchases per year.

The professional consensus on advertising to children also confirms that such advertising frequently exploits the desire of all children to establish their own unique identities, even to the point of self-destructive behavior. The hard liquor industry broke a self-imposed ban on television advertising in 1996 and by 1999 eight of the 15 shows most popular with teens had alcohol advertising. Many remember the eventual admission that Joe Camel really targeted children, not adults. A 2006 report by the American Association of Pediatrics summarized the pervasiveness of the problem by noting that, "Young people view more than 40,000 ads per year on television alone and increasingly are being exposed to advertising on the Internet, in magazines, and in schools. This exposure may contribute significantly to childhood and adolescent obesity, poor nutrition, and cigarette and alcohol use."

South Carolina needs new buses for its schoolchildren. It need not, however, turn those buses into Orwellian internment camps wherein the children receive a daily force-feeding of the latest offerings of an industry seeking to hook clients at an early age and trap them for life into whatever profit center bids highest for the school bus platform. Surely our children are more valuable than that.

 

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