No Coca-Cola Ads on The School Bus? Or Are Higher Taxes Really the Answer?

I know this is the week between Christmas and New Years, but did CBS really need to dig up 12 year old news to fill time this morning? The subject was commercial advertising on public school buses in Colorado Springs, an outrage pretty much contained to liberals who hate commercials and lower school taxes.

In the 7:00 half hour of Wednesday’s Early Show, host Harry Smith interviewed two guests about the growing trend of school districts selling advertising space on their school busses, and once again the Early Show is more than a decade late in reporting the controversy (Christmas Card Controversy). Elaine Naleski, Director of Communications for Colorado Springs District 11 school, told Harry Smith "Colorado Springs District 11 started putting ads on busses in 1993 and it was because they couldn't pass a tax increase of any kind..." So why is this news? Could it be that CBS wanted to put on a guest that would argue that higher taxes are the answer? Gary Ruskin of the "consumer group" Commercial Alert opposed the idea of private revenue sources and called for higher taxes when he told Smith, " The answer is for school districts to band together and to demand a partial revocation of the Bush tax cuts and send it back to schools and police and fire departments that are absolutely abjectly poor." Ruskin neglected to mention that the Federal government is spending more money than ever on education, and that spending on education has risen faster under President Bush than it had under President Clinton, nor did Harry Smith feel the need to mention that fact either.

Although Smith came across as even handed to both his guests, he allowed Ruskin to get away with leveling some ridiculous charges. For instance, Ruskin charged "...we already have an epidemic of marketing related diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes and this kind of advertising is only going to make it worse, and it's the job of schools to stand on the side of parents who want kids to grow up with strong bodies and healthy values, not to stand on the side of greedy corporations that just want to market more junk food to kids." And, "In the mind of a child, a kid, you know a kid goes to school and they're taught to obey and so when we transfer the authority of the school to the advertisers well then, they you know they obey the advertisers and they go out and buy these you know junk food and soda pop, and it helps make the epidemic of marketing related diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes even worse."

Stopping advertisements on school busses or even in schools it self will not stop children from being bombarded with advertisements. As Harry Smith points out, ""Gary, let me ask you this though, now do you have any sense whatsoever, I mean some, we've seen these surveys that kids watch what 3, 4, 5 sometimes 7 hours of television a day, do you have any sense whatsoever, or proof for instance, that these ads actually have any effect on these kids?" Since children are watching more TV than ever, they are going to see commercials, a billboard on a bus isn’t going to make a difference one way or the other to them, but it can make a huge difference to taxpayers.

Private revenue streams for schools allow the school to fund programs without raising taxes, and that is just good economics. The lower the taxes are at any level, federal, state, or local, it’s more money in the hands of consumers who can determine how best to use it. As Elaine Naleski pointed out in talking about advertising dollars in schools, "...taxpayers appreciate it."

The debate between taxpayers, schools, and "consumer" groups should be an easy one to decide, but I have to at least give credit to CBS for promoting a debate as to whether this kind of advertising could be harmful to children. But, does anyone think CBS will look internally and promote the debate into whether it’s own programming is harmful to kids? I think not.

Transcript follows:

Harry Smith: "All over the country school busses are starting to look like something from NASCAR, that's because advertisers are paying big bucks to turn those busses into moving billboards. School Districts say they need the dough, but critics say these ads are the last thing students need. Elaine Naleski is Director of Communications for Colorado Springs District 11, which has put ads on busses for more than a decade; Gary Ruskin Executive Director of the consumer group Commercial Alert opposes bus advertising, good morning to you both. Elaine, let me start with you, when did you start putting ads on busses and why?

Elaine Naleski: "Colorado Springs District 11 started putting ads on busses in 1993 and it was because they couldn't pass a tax increase of any kind, and the leaders in the community who were talking to the superintendent, who was pretty desperate at that time, said to him you need to find some alternative funding methods to fund the schools. You're not going to get a tax increase, be entrepreneurial."

Harry Smith: "Right, so you started putting the ads on the busses, how much money do you raise with this, with this advertising?"

Elaine Naleski: "Well at this point it's not an enormous amount, it's about, including a Coke vending contract, it's about 650,000."

Harry Smith: "Well that ends up being a significant amount of money. Here's the question, do you have any complaints in your school district about this?"

Elaine Naleski: "Absolutely not, I think there were some in the beginning, but people got used to it, and now they fully understand; taxpayers appreciate it."

Harry Smith: "Hmm, Gary Ruskin let's get your two cents worth in here. Now you don't think this is a very good idea, why not?"

Gary Ruskin: "Well this is commercial exploitation of vulnerable and impressionable school children. We send our kids to school to teach them to read and write and add and think, not to clobber them with advertising, and it's pretty predictable what kinds of companies are going to want to advertise to kids in schools, well it's the junk food and soda pop companies, and in America we already have an epidemic of marketing related diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes and this kind of advertising is only going to make it worse, and it's the job of schools to stand on the side of parents who want kids to grow up with strong bodies and healthy values, not to stand on the side of greedy corporations that just want to market more junk food to kids."

Harry Smith: "Gary, let me ask you this though, now do you have any sense whatsoever, I mean some, we've seen these surveys that kids watch what 3, 4, 5 sometimes 7 hours of television a day, do you have any sense whatsoever, or proof for instance, that these ads actually have any effect on these kids?"

Gary Ruskin: "Well of course they do, that's one of the reasons why advertisers want to be in schools. You know the school is a very powerful symbol in the mind of a child. In the mind of a child, a kid, you know a kid goes to school and they're taught to obey and so when we transfer the authority of the school to the advertisers well then, they you know they obey the advertisers and they go out and buy these you know junk food and soda pop, and it helps make the epidemic of marketing related diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes even worse."

Harry Smith: "Elaine, let me ask you this, is the advertising in your school busses on the inside or the outside."

Elaine Naleski: "It's advertising on the outside, and I'd just like to comment that the advertising is not in the schools, the teachers are not teaching the children to buy any of these products. The advertising is on the outside of school busses for the public, it's not for the children."

Harry Smith: "Do you have any sense that the kids in your school district are actually paying attention to these ads?"

Elaine Naleski: "Well I've interviewed lots of kids, and I've interviewed kids on camera for lot's of interviews, and um I hate to say this in front of our advertisers, but no they don't know what signs are on what busses, and I hope none of our advertisers are listening to this."

Harry Smith: "<laughing> Well you may have just lost a source of funding. Umm seriously though, what kinds of, besides the Coca Cola who else advertises on your busses?"

Elaine Naleski: "Our busses have advertisements for local companies, it's not Wendy's, it's not the junk food companies. It's our dentists, it's our doctors, it's our credit unions, it's our banks, it's our car dealers, it's not what your saying."

Harry Smith: "Let me go back to Gary a second, how would you, these school districts, so many of them, are under so much financial pressure. How would you suggest they raise the money instead of using this source of revenue."

Gary Ruskin: "Well it's a national shame how many school districts are totally begging for funds, they're abjectly poor, but the answer is not to put our children up for sale that's morally wrong. The answer is for school districts to band together and to demand a partial revocation of the Bush tax cuts and send it back to schools and police and fire departments that are absolutely abjectly poor."

Harry Smith: "Would you be opposed to advertising that restricted say for instance things for fast food or soda, stuff like that?"

Gary Ruskin: "No, the point is that our children should not be for sale. We send our children to school to teach them to read and write and add and think, not to clobber them with commercial propaganda."