Sales & Marketing

From Walls to Roofs, Schools Sell Ad Space

By Jessica L. Sandham — June 04, 1997 6 min read
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The Grapevine-Colleyville school district in Grapevine, Texas, is open for business.

For $1,000, a company can put its name on a 2-by-5 sign in a district gym and advertise daily on a schoolwide television station. For $4,000 more, it can hang additional signs on outdoor stadiums and the district’s buses.

And $15,000 can buy a deluxe advertising package that includes recognition on the district’s voicemail system and signage rights to the roof of a school building visible to passengers flying into the nearby Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

The district’s first rooftop-advertising deal will likely be with Dr Pepper. The soft-drink company is expected next week to sign a 10-year, multimillion-dollar contract with the 12,000-student system that is believed to be the largest of its kind.

While few districts have sought corporate sponsorship as aggressively as Grapevine-Colleyville, the practice is becoming increasingly common--and sophisticated--as schools search for innovative ways to generate more money without raising taxes.

Critics argue that educators who open school doors to advertisers are padding budgets at the expense of young minds.

“I have come to believe that people are so incredibly unaware of the motives of advertisers,” said Brita Butler-Wall, a member of a Seattle group called the Citizen’s Campaign for Commercial-free Schools. “It’s so insane for parents to think that these companies actually care about the students. “

But to people like Dan DeRose, who helped broker the deal between Grapevine-Colleyville and Dr Pepper, it’s the students who lose when districts close themselves off from the extra dollars that businesses can deliver.

“There’s a great need for what we do,” said Mr. DeRose, the founder of DD Marketing, a Pueblo, Colo.-based company that links school districts and universities with corporate sponsors. “Everybody needs money, and schools don’t realize the potential they have to generate revenue.”

Entrepreneurial Spirit

Advertising in schools is nothing new. Districts have long used ads from local businesses to help pay the cost of school newspapers, yearbooks, and athletic programs.

But during the late 1980s, businesses came up with a host of savvier methods for marketing themselves in schools, and many districts--especially those hit hard by a downturn in the economy--were receptive.

Among the most controversial commercial ventures was Channel One, launched by media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle in 1989. Now owned by K-III Communications Corp., Channel One gives free satellite dishes, television sets, and VCRs to schools that promise to require their students to watch the company’s daily mix of news and advertising. The program is broadcast in roughly 12,000 middle and high schools across the country.

District 11 in Colorado Springs, Colo., took corporate sponsorship to a new level in 1994, when it launched a full-scale fund-raising program that offered companies advertising space in hallways, on school buses, and on athletic fields.

The advertisements developed by its corporate sponsors are tastefully done and resemble public service announcements, said Tracey Cooper, the district’s internal advertising manager.

One example, she said, are Burger King-sponsored “spirit buses” at the district’s five high schools. The buses are painted with the mascot of each high school, along with a smaller Burger King logo.

“In a perfect world we wouldn’t have to do this,” Ms. Cooper said. “But I think the program helped with how the community perceived us because it showed we were willing to be entrepreneurial and weren’t just taking the taxpayers’ money.”

Officials of the Grapevine-Colleyville schools proposed similar sponsorships during a brainstorming session last year, when district officials were looking for new ways to raise revenue. Though the district is one of the wealthiest in Texas, it relinquished $11.4 million last year to a poorer district as a result of the state’s revamped school finance system.

“Right now, we’re in a pinch,” said Louise Henry, a spokeswoman for Grapevine-Colleyville. “We can’t add any programs or go forward with technological improvements. And the community is saying they don’t want their property taxes increased again.”

School Bus Billboards

Much of the debate this year over advertising in schools concerned buses. Measures to allow signs on them failed in New York state and New Mexico, but in Arizona, Republican Gov. Fife Symington recently signed into law a bill that enables individual districts to make their own decisions about school bus advertising.

And in Tennessee, the House voted last month to pass legislation that would allow 5-foot-wide black-and-white ads on the rear quarter panel of school buses. The bill, which prohibits alcohol and tobacco ads on the buses, now goes back to the Senate for consideration of an amendment that would also exclude political advertisements.

State Rep. Mae Beavers said she decided to introduce the bill in Tennessee at the request of James L. Francis, the superintendent of the Wilson County district. Mr. Francis said his district plans to use any revenue generated from the sale of such ads to replace old school buses.

“From what I’ve seen, the ads are unobtrusive, and we’re not trying to mandate it,” Ms. Beavers, a Republican, said.

Jerry Winters, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, said schools should think twice before putting ads on buses.

“We’re opposed to [the bill] for safety reasons,” Mr. Winters said. “Advertisements are there to get your attention, so people won’t be paying attention” to their driving.

But Mr. DeRose said the safety of ads on school buses is not a legitimate concern.

“It’s a decal stuck to the side of a bus,” he said. “My only safety concern would be if a kid pulled it off and wrapped it around his head.”

Who’s Minding the Store?

The real danger of corporate sponsorships in schools is that it brings public education one step closer to privatization, Ms. Butler-Wall, the Seattle activist, argued.

In her view, young people are bombarded with advertising in malls, on streets, and on television. Schools should offer a commercial-free haven focused solely on academic learning, not corporate hype, she said.

“If this is where we’re going with public schools, then let us walk into it with our eyes wide open,” Ms. Butler-Wall said. “Let us not just sit back and allow it to happen to our kids.”

Her group successfully campaigned to stop the Seattle school board from going forward with plans to accept advertisements on school property. The board approved an advertising plan last fall, but voted to rescind the policy in March.

“There were a number of people who made it clear that they were prepared to fight this issue for a long time,” said Chris Case, a spokeswoman for the Seattle public schools. “And we didn’t want to be in an adversarial position with anyone.” (“Seattle Board To Review Plan To Allow Ads in Schools,” March 5, 1997.)

Last month, at the request of Superintendent John H. Stanford, the Seattle Council of Parent, Teacher, and Student Associations conducted an audit of 30 area schools to examine the extent of advertising on campus. The group found that many classrooms are chock-full of corporate logos on posters, computer mouse pads, calendars, and book covers. Product samples and company-sponsored art and essay contests are other examples of the ways advertisers find their way into schools.

Ms. Butler-Wall said the group plans to present its findings to school board members in the hope that it will assist them in creating a districtwide advertising policy.

“Schools are a very permeable environment for advertisers,” she said. “Nobody’s minding the store.”

For Chuck Breske, the advertising director of the Cub Foods franchises in Colorado Springs, placing ads in schools makes good business sense. The grocery franchises recently renewed a $12,000 contract with District 11 for next school year.

“It’s always in the back of our minds to improve sales,” Mr. Breske said. “We’re building on the image we have in the community of being involved. And that’s important.”


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