Billboards on school buses

Students at the Fenway High School in Boston pound away on keyboards in the CVS Pharmacies Computer Lab and check out books from the Harcourt General Library without giving the “branding” a second thought. In an increasingly commercialized society, corporate labels show up on everything. Sure, the FleetCenter has replaced the Boston Garden. But naming classrooms after corporate donors? What’s next?

If House Minority Leader Francis Marini (R-Hanson) has his way, advertisements could one day be plastered across yellow school buses. Under his bill, the ads could not promote any product that’s illegal for minors, such as alcohol, tobacco, or gambling. But they would give local school districts a new source of funding.

The concept isn’t new. For years, schools strapped for cash have made lucrative deals with soft drink companies that place vending machines in the cafeteria or local businesses that buy deluxe scoreboards, emblazoned with their names, for the home team. Nationally, companies buy marketing spots on Channel One, the news program shown daily in some schools.

Opponents of commercialism in schools say advertising on campuses turns vulnerable schoolchildren into a captive market. Not only do students have their own money to spend–about $15 billion by one 1995 estimate–they also influence their parents’ spending decisions.

In September, while the ad industry hosted its Golden Marble awards to honor the most creative advertising to kids, down the hall of the same New York City hotel an opposition group sponsored the Have You Lost Your Marbles? awards. The event, hosted by the coalition Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children, targeted companies the group says take advantage of children. Several states, including California, are considering measures to curtail the presence of soft-drink vending machines in schools out of concern over childhood obesity.

“Basically we’re funding our kids’ education at the expense of their health,” says Susan Linn, associate director of the media center at the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston, who helped organize the protest.

There’s plenty of State House opposition to the Republican leader’s proposal as well. The bill was bumped from the education committee to the public safety committee, where House chairman Timothy Toomey (D-Cambridge) buried it in a study.

“It’s really a public safety issue,” says Toomey, citing concern for keeping yellow school buses recognizable. But Toomey is also not taken with the idea of school buses becoming “commercialized” by delivering advertising messages at every stop. Students, he says, “should be concentrating on what they’re going to be learning in school that day, rather than what kind of jeans or special shoes they should buy.”

Marini scoffs at the idea that school-bus ads would harm students, who already are exposed to advertising “morning, noon, and night,” he notes. “To say that a small billboard on the side of a bus is going to somehow affect these children, I find that argument unbelievable.”

Placards have been allowed on school buses in some other places, including New York City, where officials screen the ads, which are required to have a highway safety theme. But in Canada, after a few districts experimented with ads on school bus exteriors, the Ontario Bus Association came out against them, citing safety concerns like Toomey’s.

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Even some educators who rely on corporate funding say this one’s a bad idea.”I think it’s a needless intrusion,” says Larry Myatt, headmaster at Fenway High School. Naming a room after a donor is one thing, Myatt says, but putting advertising on school property is another.

Marini says he’ll introduce the measure again next session, for the third time. But he knows his proposal faces an uphill climb. “When it gets to the House floor people will mock it and make fun of it as if I’m trying to sell the souls of our children for a filthy dollar,” he says. “What I’m trying to do is look for new sources of revenue for our school children without costing the taxpayer.”

Michele Kurtz, a freelance writer living in Cambridge, is a frequent contributor to The Boston Globe.