August 10th, 2005

School Bus Ads Have Some on Board

By Hannah Sampson
Miami Herald

Possibly coming soon to a school bus near you: advertising.

Joining its neighbors in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, the Broward County school district is exploring the idea of posting banner ads in its more than 1,000 school buses.

Cash-strapped districts in states including Florida, Tennessee, Texas, New York, California and Colorado have turned to their buses for profit, though not without raising some hackles.

“We should teach kids to read and write and add and think, not to shop,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit anti-commercialism group based in Portland, Ore. “It’s the job of school officials to protect kids from that voracious commercial culture.”

At a workshop Tuesday, Broward School Board members agreed they want the money that school bus ads would bring, but debated how far such advertising should go.

“I’m very reluctant to go into full-scale advertising,” said board member Maureen Dinnen.

She said that while she has no problem with an ad that encourages a child to drink orange juice, “I have a problem advertising Minute Maid as opposed to Donald Duck.”

Most board members were more comfortable with the idea of using public service messages such as “Be Healthy and Exercise” or “Eat Cheese” and showing a sponsor’s logo at the bottom than directly advertising Nikes or Velveeta.

But board members Robin Bartleman and Beverly Gallagher said they were willing to go with even more direct advertising, which would bring more money.

“I know there are people out there who don’t want their kids to be billboards, but if you look at Little League teams, my kids wore Jake’s Garage on their back,” Gallagher said. “That’s not an advertisement?”

Everyone agreed that certain standards could not be compromised: no plugs for R-rated movies or junk food, for example.

The Miami-Dade School Board made a deal with Miami-based School Bus Media in May 2004 to post advertisements in school buses, though no ads have yet been placed. The school district estimated it would make between $ 400,000 and $ 2.3 million a year for the right to advertise on its 1,800 buses, said district spokesman John Schuster.

Palm Beach County Schools has a five-year contract with the same company, and will receive a quarter of the gross income, according to School Bus Media marketing director Wendall Collins. The district could net a quarter million dollars a year.

There were no estimates yet of the potential profit in Broward.

The district’s Advertising Committee, which recommended on Tuesday that the board move forward on bus ads, would be responsible for approving actual copy created by a sponsor.

The board agreed to seek letters of interest from firms who would administer the advertising program. Once district staff find a preferred company, they’ll negotiate a contract and bring it to the School Board.

Kathy Rayson, immediate past president of the Broward County Council of PTAs and platform chair of the Florida PTA, said she was disappointed with the School Board’s interest in bus ads.

“What we’re talking about here is a captive audience of kids who are barraged with images day and night on TV and on the Internet and now on school buses,” she said. “I think some things should be sacred, and that ride to school in the morning on the school bus might be one of those things.”

But advertisers are hungry to reach children. Last year, kids ages 12-17 spent an estimated $ 124 billion, according to a report by Mintel International, a Chicago market research firm. In Broward County, about 85,000 kids ride the school bus every day.

Janet Bravo, who has two kids in elementary school—both of whom ride the bus—said she likes the idea of public service announcements, and doesn’t mind if corporate logos are included, even though kids are sure to pick up on the symbols.

“Kids are still savvy to that,” Bravo said. “They know what the logo looks like.”

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