Fri February 18, 2011

Districts Turning to School Bus Advertising to Shore Up Budgets

As Colorado K-12 schools face an estimated $375 million cut in funding next year, some may be turning to companies like State Farm Insurance and First Bank for help. More districts are deciding to display ads on the sides of school busses for extra revenue. Five states this year are considering legalizing the practice.

Extra Money

Half a dozen parents in Greeley Colorado are sitting in their cars, waiting for a yellow bus to deliver their elementary kids. Starting next school year, parent Stan Whittaker will see ads and logos when bus pulls up.

“We have to be kind of streetwise where we have to find different ways to make money and to survive,” he said.

But dad Shane Gabriel isn’t happy.

“It’s a bad thing,” he said. “Because you’re using the kids to make money.”

Some ads for food and restaurants will be aimed at kids. But others that might promote insurance or home improvement are for an adult audience. With revenues down, and little hope for raising taxes, the school district’s Wayne Eads is hoping that kids simply won’t notice.

“It is external advertising on the outside of busses, and kids basically won’t see if except when the bus drives by,” he said.

Arizona, New Mexico and Tennessee which allow school bus ads also regulate it, barring tobacco and alcohol. In Northern Colorado, the move is expected to bring in about $10,000 next year. It may not sound like much, but it could grow. Dallas County School District in Texas has earned more than $94,000 since the school year started.

’Kids Don’t Notice Them’

At Wasson High School in Colorado Springs, students are discussing ads in their media studies class. This was the first district in the country to use the school bus ads back in 1993.

Students in this classroom couldn’t remember the names of any actual advertisers. And that’s why Elaine Naleski, with the Colorado Springs school district, said she recommends the practice to others. In good times, the money goes for extras like band equipment. In bad times, the money goes to the general fund.

“Kids don’t really notice them,” she said. “I don’t think the advertisers like hearing that, but they don’t really notice them.”

But at least one group is concerned about the trend.

“Teaching children that things we own is what defines us and is going to make us happy is not a lesson that’s good to teach kids, particularly in schools,” said Josh Golin with the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood.

Golin said these ads lead kids to be more materialistic. And he points to South Carolina, which banned them.

But some advertisers say they’re not looking to reach kids. Scott Lawrence works for an ad agency representing the Southern Colorado tourist destination Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. He said the ads are targeted at young families and baby boomers.

“We base our advertising on reach and coverage,” he said. “School bus advertising gave us a unique opportunity to get coverage in areas we couldn’t normally get.”

…meaning into residential neighborhoods that typically don’t allow billboards.

 More States Considering Legislation

Back in Colorado Springs, Susan Callan is standing outside North Middle School waiting for her son’s basketball game to start. Even though the ads have been up for almost two decades here, she said she’s never noticed them.

“It’s more important to have the busses running than it is to worry about that advertisement, I think,” she said.

In the coming months, five more states including Florida and Washington will decide if they’ll turn to school bus advertisers to help balance the books.