School buses are an icon in our culture. The traditional bright yellow buses bring up childhood memories as swiftly and surely as the smell of cookies baking.
Everything changes, though, even traditions. The sides of many bright yellow school buses are sporting a new look this year: ads.
Showing off everything from sugary treats to doctors’ offices, buses are becoming the new billboards in many towns. Hungry for cash, towns and cities are turning their school buses into valuable advertising real estate. Schools are also selling ads in lunchrooms, parking lots and on their school websites. A few are putting advertising inside the buses.
That seems like a creative solution to the all-too-real cash flow shortage many schools are facing. But is it good for kids?
NO. Selling ad space on school property, especially in the lunchroom where the kids are so clearly the target audience, is not good for kids. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s bad for them.
Young children in particular are exceptionally vulnerable to advertising. They can’t easily differentiate between ads and entertainment or educational images. The advertising posters telling them to eat sugary cereal seem just as authoritative and honest as the PSAs encouraging them to eat a healthy, balanced meal.
It could be that selling ad space is the lesser evil. That’s certainly what those doing it claim. The ad revenues are, as the New York Times describes it, “a drop in the bucket” of school budget needs, but it’s a drop that makes it possible for some schools to buy new textbooks or hire a music teacher. That’s a compelling argument. Maybe it’s worth a little advertising exposure to get kids these benefits. After all, they see ads everywhere else.
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood isn’t buying it, according to the NYT:
Critics say exposing impressionable young children to ads that appear to be endorsed by their educators is problematic.
“Mandatory education laws are based on the idea that education is good for society, and is good for kids,” said Josh Golin, associate director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a nonprofit organization. “That argument falls apart when you’re talking about mandatory exposure to advertising.”
Neither am I. Yes, advertising is ubiquitous. But that doesn’t mean our kids should have it staring them in the face while they eat their lunch or ride the bus.
There does seem to be two classes of ads here: those that are aimed mainly at adults and those that are aimed mainly at children. A cereal ad in an elementary school lunchroom is taking advantage of the captive audience of little kids with few critical thinking skills. A bank ad on the side of a school bus is probably aimed more at parents and community members who will see it as the bus goes by.
It’s the first set of ads I’m really upset by. In general, I think advertising and schools don’t mix. We’re sending our kids the wrong message when we appear to endorse advertising through their schools. Schools are places to learn, not to shop. I’d like to see neither form of ads being sold on school property. It’s the ones aimed at kids that seem especially insidious, though. As adults, I believe we should be doing what we can to protect kids from media influence and advertising, not pushing more of it on them.
Does your school have advertising in its lunchrooms? On its buses? Do you love it or hate it? Are the ads just a necessary evil?