Sales & Marketing

Ad Infinitum

By David Carpman — November 12, 2004 5 min read
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Selling at school isn’t new. From candy-bar fund-raisers to Channel One, capitalism has played a part in school life since the first PTO raffled its first cake. The advance of marketing onto campuses isn’t going entirely unchallenged—Seattle’s school board recently decided to cancel its five-year, $1.5 million vending machine contract with the Coca-Cola Company. But faced with mounting pressures and shrinking district budgets, schools are letting advertisers boldly put their messages where no ads have gone before. Small advertisements in yearbooks are being joined by large placards on school buses. Commercial signs inside gyms are giving way to gyms as commercial signs. While some hail these novel marketing approaches as an innovative response to a long financial drought, others wonder whether students will ultimately pay the price.


Your Ad Here: Selling ad space inside school buses

—Glynis Sweeny


How it works: The Miami-Dade County school board approved a plan allowing a private company to place student-targeted ads inside district buses. School Bus Advertising is already selling ad space elsewhere in Florida, and similar ventures are under way in Massachusetts and under consideration in other states; but Miami-Dade would be the first large urban school district to make its bus-riding students a captive audience. Under the terms of the conceptual proposal green-lighted this past spring, the company would sell and install the ads, routing 25 percent of the revenue to the district—as much as $2 million per year, school board members said. The company’s vice president, David Hill, says that the ads will be strictly monitored and that only public service announcements and ads pertaining to such topics as “nutrition, exercise, and school supplies” are permitted—preferable to “the ones kids see every weekend on Nickelodeon,” he adds. Local pupil Lynda Hunt-Dorta told the Miami Herald, “This isn’t really something that [the students] mind.”

How it doesn’t: While community opposition in Miami has been minimal, the nationwide trend of advertising on school property has drawn vocal critics. “I believe that a public school has no business promoting particular private companies or brands,” says Brita Butler-Wall, vice president of the Seattle school board and co-founder of the independent watchdog group Citizens’ Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools. “That, in my opinion, is a misuse of public facilities and public funds, and it’s a complete perversion of what education is about.”


Your Message Here: Equating health with a company name

How it works: Atkins Nutritionals is funding the nutrition and exercise initiatives of an in-school anti-obesity program put together by the National Education Association, the National Association of State Boards of Education, and other groups. Atkins says it will also provide “the latest research and information available on controlled-carbohydrate nutrition” for an NEA Web site meant to promote good health.

How it doesn’t: Nearly everyone agrees that childhood obesity is a dangerous problem, but not everyone thinks it’s appropriate to let a food-fad guru’s company underwrite efforts to fight it. Critics say the Atkins label on such efforts gives the company a subtle, legitimized way to introduce its brand to impressionable minds. “Food companies are going heavily into ‘cause marketing’ to get the imprimatur of outside, supposedly well-meaning groups,” Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit that tracks the effects of commercialism, told USA Today. But Jerald Newberry, who directs the NEA’s Health Information Network, told the paper that schools can’t afford to be overly picky about the sources of funding for such projects. “Are you going to live in a world where you’re trying to solve problems on your own, with your limited budget, or are you going to live in a realistic world?” he asks.


Your Name Here: Selling naming rights for school buildings

How it works: Students heading for PE at Alice Costello Elementary in Brooklawn, New Jersey, no longer simply go to the gym. Thanks to a local supermarket’s donation of $100,000 over 20 years, the school’s athletic facility was renamed the ShopRite of Brooklawn Center in 2001. Its media center has also been renamed—the rights to do so were bought by a local family. “Districts, in very difficult economic times, are having to look to nontraditional means to generate revenue,” says superintendent John Kellmayer. He notes that the district has faced little to no opposition about this particular decision but acknowledges that “some potential sponsors would be inappropriate” for an educational environment.

How it doesn’t: Some educators worry about the messages that may be sent by excessive, ubiquitous commercialization. For example, Kellmayer says that the board of trustees is “not supportive” of proposals to rename the school itself in deference to Alice Costello, a former teacher and principal who served there for nearly 30 years. As former board President Kathleen Maass told the Associated Press, “There are some things that shouldn’t be for sale.”


Your Customers Here: Making field trips into marketing opportunities

How it works: As visiting the zoo becomes too costly for many underfunded schools, teachers are turning to other methods of visiting the world outside their classrooms. Field Trip Factory, a rapidly growing Chicago company, designs and schedules free student excursions to local retailers. Underwritten by the stores themselves, the trips allow students to explore different types of businesses and include presentations on topics relating to the merchandise, such as nutrition seminars in supermarkets. “[The trips] are solidly educational,” company President Susan Singer says. “Teachers have been arranging these kinds of field trips on their own for years. All we did was try to make it easier.”

How it doesn’t: Opponents condemn the trips as blatant efforts to promote brands and drive spending. The “retail destinations,” which include Petco and the Sports Authority, pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to Field Trip Factory to be included and see large jumps in sales for products featured on the trips. But Jennifer Williams, who teaches at Cedarbrook Elementary School in Painesville, Ohio, praised a recent class trip. “The activities tied in with our state standards,” she says, calling the experience “a good introduction to learning about being a consumer.”


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