School Bus Ads: Good Use of Space, or Crass Commercialization?

Facing a combined budget deficit of more than $100 billion for fiscal year 2012, a lot of states are cutting education budgets to make ends meet: laying off teachers, reducing hours and services. But recently, a handful of states have found a creative way to raise revenue from public education by putting advertisements on school buses.

Seven states, the latest being New Jersey, now allow school districts to sell ads on the sides of public school buses. Florida is currently considering it. So is Guam apparently. There are even two companies, Alpha Media and Steep Creek Media (both in Texas), that specialize in nothing but school bus advertisements. Note to Steep Creek Media: you may want to lead with something other than a Little Caesars pizza ad on your home page. Getting healthier food into public school cafeterias is kind of a big topic these days. Anyway, an executive at Alpha Media tells the Philadelphia Inquirer that a school district with 150 buses can make up to $500,000 over four years by selling ads.

A quick Internet search shows local school boards all over the country considering selling ads on their school buses. But it also uncovers a similar pattern of news stories about cash-strapped school districts selling ads on school buses back in 1994. This New York Times piece highlights a school district in Colorado that plastered its buses with ads from Burger King and 7-11 to help supplement a $133 million budget. While I can understand why some parents might not be in favor of this, if putting ads on yellow school buses means a few teachers get to keep their jobs, it seems like an OK decision. But do the ads always have to be for things like fast food and convenience stores?

What do you think?

[poll id=”19″]


When will pharmaceutical companies start taking advantage of this?

"Are all your friends on Adderall and they won't share? Talk to your doctor today!"


I think it's a great idea. Quite frankly, any time I see an empty space in a public area, I think it's a wasted opportunity; someone somewhere would pay some amount to put something on there. Is it crass commercialization? Maybe, but hey, money is what makes the world go round.

Mike B

While this sort of revenue definitely helps, in the long run it turns out to be a drop in the bucket compared to the sorts of budget cuts that states are now forcing through. Frankly I'd like to see more schools start charging for parking or at least the best spots close to the building. If students are wealthy enough to drive themselves to school why should the district subsudize that chose with free parking? This is a no brainer for urban and older suburban schools that have limited space for such amenities.


On the other hand you have to hire someone to inforce this...


Great idea. Let's also start selling advertisements on the sides of bombers, A-10s, Predator drones, attack helicopters, tanks, etc., that we send off to exotic lands. I'm sure McDonalds would love to soften up the Afghan market with tanks emblazoned with the golden arches.

Milo Minderbinder

Seems like a perfectly good idea to make money from opportunities such as this.

"Catch 22", indeed...


Sad, a terrible choice districts and administrators are faced with. In the long run, what are the costs to society of increased obesity from a public school endorsement of fast food? What affect does commercialization have on the psyche of the children?


Just before I left my high school (so 1995-7) in the Netherlands (and we were a rich, nearly-all-white school, too), advertising billboards appeared in all the halls. Forget the outside -- there were actually there right between our lockers and the door to the classroom.

The US seems to be a bit behind the times.

Admittedly, ours did seem to be vetted to not be too offensive to the first-graders (we start counting over again on moving to high school, at 12/13) and their parents, and did not seem to include Burger King or McD.


Maybe material for another column, but I can't help but wonder: is advertising space really worth THAT much? I'll concede that I'm a long way from being a representative member of the public, but I can't instantly recall ever being influenced to buy a product by a display ad.


"Anyway, an executive at Alpha Media tells the Philadelphia Inquirer that a school district with 150 buses can make up to $500,000 over four years by selling ads."

So a single bus is going to make a touch over $800 a year for a school district. Now that ain't peanuts, but it does make me wonder what companies like Alpha Media charge per bus.


This is a fine example of a common practice - when you want a number to appear big, accumulate of a large number of examples and time (150 buses, 4 years.) If you want it to appear small, cut it down: one year, one bus. In this case, I think one year, one bus is the honest and natural way to report it - it is the natural scale of the problem, and lets you easily compare it to other relevant costs. In this case, we can see that compared to capital, maintenance and running costs of a school bus, this is small change.

Similarly, notice how when government cuts spending or increases revenue, they'll tell you how much over 5 or 10 years, instead of per-year. (Unless it is a tax increase, when they'll try to make it look small, quoting perhaps median per person, or average per person where 'person' includes lots of non-taxpayers.)


I think I'm going to be ill.


I thought that companies often already subsidized schools by placing soft-sell advertisements in hallway shadowboxes?


There's not a thing in the world wrong with this so long as the ad is appropriate. This would likely have to be on a case-by-case basis. Some things that seem especially off limits would be political election ads, fast-food, toys, or the such like. Surely it wouldn't be terrible to advertise for a local college, or for eyeglasses, etc.

Just this past week, I sent our superintendent an idea. Businesses pay big bucks to name stadiums; rich folks pay big bucks to name a Business School. Why not let people pay to name the local football field? the gym? the business department of the high school? the school itself.

Of course, there would have to be waivers (for moral failing and non-payment), etc. But why shouldn't a school be permitted to dig a little bit to survive? Moreover, we could then put to work that concept of a auctions where a bunch of people can band together to to come up with the winning bid to name a stadium, etc.


Luis Alvarez

I think this is a great idea as long as they keep the advertisments tasteful and in line with the associated audience. Either way, great idea for new revenue!

Joshua Northey

You could also have the students make bracelets during the bus ride and sell them to tourists.

Or you could take pictures of them and sell them on the internet.

Or you could tape fights between the children and sell those on pay per view?

Of all the things wrong with the way we run our economy the omi-presence of advertising is perhaps the most destructive. It leads to a bunch of people with severe decision making disorders and badly warped expectations.

Cut back on advertising 50% and net utility would probably rise 5% in a week. Anyone who actually wants information about products can find it easily these days so advertising only virtuous function has atrophied completely.


I am against this for a couple of reasons:

1) obviously, the ads are not good for students. As was already pointed out, they are usually for junk food, which contributes to various health problems such as obesity, diabetes, etc. At the very least, there should be rules in place about what kind of products/services are appropriate.

2) exposing students to ads on school buses gives the impression that the school endorses/approves/supports these products. Even if the products in question aren't necessarily unhealthy, it is not good to provide advertising to a captive (and malleable) audience.

3) fundraising is actually contributing to funding problems for public schools. By fundraising, schools are letting governments off the hook for under-funding. If governments know that they can count on schools to raise a portion of the funds they need, they are much more likely to cut funding or avoid funding increases. Fundraising masks the costs of education.

4) fundraising in schools amplifies disparities between schools and school districts. While the American, tax-based system (where public school funding is tied to local taxes) is clearly a terrible, terrible thing, fundraising makes things even worse. While the school located in the rich suburbs can raise a lot of money through fundraising, the poor inner-city school has very little money to draw from.

So no, even though it seems like a good idea at first, I would be quite against this.



You have a good point about the differences in districts being able to raise funds based on the economic demographics of an area. Affluent districts can raise more money because there is more discretionary money available so ads generate more income. This is the same problem that occurs with property taxes. A partial solution is to redistribute the money gained across all school districts but with this being such a small amount of money I doubt it would be worth it.


I'm all for it. And sell some space on the sign out in front of the school too. Bringing in enough revenue to run the school trumps any cries of "crass commercialism". At what point does it become crass anyway? There are plenty of ads on public city buses, why not school buses?