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School bus ads generate cash, criticism


Allison Pries

North Jersey Record
February 22, 2008



The buzz on school buses may soon go beyond the hottest gossip or who is sitting with whom.

Advertisements for clothing and backpacks -- even public service messages -- have been cropping up on school buses across the country. It's the latest attempt for cash-strapped school districts to bring in a few extra bucks.

Some say the ads are harmless messages that can deliver big help to school budgets. Others say children are being commercially influenced for a relatively paltry sum.

Should there be advertising on school buses?

Banners on school buses can bring in tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the type of ad and whether it appears inside or outside the bus.

In most cases, what goes into the bright yellow vehicles gets vetted, said C. Wendall Collins, chief executive officer of School Bus Media, a Miami-based company.

Many school districts form committees that review all ads before they are posted, he said. And companies like School Bus Media also have their own standards.

"We screen everything that comes through so it meets our guidelines -- and they're pretty stringent," he said. "Most buses are used from almost first grade all the way to high school, so the demographic spread of ages [is wide]. The content has to be appropriate for all of them."

With the advertisements, public service announcements are also posted, he said. For example, last year there was a campaign to fight obesity. So messages promoting exercise and healthy eating ran alongside paid signs advertising colleges.

"There are some good, positive things," he said. "It's all how you approach it."

Mahwah Schools Superintendent Charles Montesano said he would not have even considered the idea five years age. "But today, who knows," he said. "As budgets get tighter and tighter, due to [state imposed] caps, people will be looking at anything reasonable to increase revenues."

"There's no way I could predict which way the district would go," Montesano said. "But it's something we would talk about, sure."

No district in New Jersey currently has advertising on its buses. That's because a state Motor Vehicle Commission code prohibits advertising on the interior or exterior of school buses, said Mike Horan, spokesman for the MVC.

The code dates to more than 20 years ago, and it's unclear, he said, whether it was meant to address concerns about safety or the potential corruption of children.

Robert Weissman, managing director of the non-profit Commercial Alert, says the code is a good thing.

"Children are bombarded with commercial messages and pervasive marketing," he said. "School facilities and buses, to the extent possible, should be a haven from those kinds of commercial influences."

Weissman says the ads contradict the educational message that schools are conveying. "It encourages kids to judge other kids based on what they have and what they wear, not to relate to them based on who they are," he said.

The amount these ads generate is small relative to an overall school budget, which often runs tens of millions of dollars.

"Any perception that the money comes without a cost -- that it's a new revenue stream and it's free -- is mistaken," Weissman said. "There is a cost. Advertisers are paying for something and in many cases, it's access to children."

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