What School Bus Advertising Says About Who We Are

As the free-market siege of government intensifies, I propose a new index for assessing the desperation of municipalities.  Let’s call it the School Bus Hucksterism Index, or SBHI.  This scientifically calculated number will represent the number of school districts nationwide that have begun selling advertising space on their school buses, multiplied by the aggregate number of ads and the average revenue per bus.   

What was once a bizarre novelty – advertising on school buses – is becoming the new normal in many school districts.  It is an ominous sign of a great decline of our civic identities and commitment to place.  As the NYT reported this week:  

“Cash-hungry states and municipalities, in pursuit of even the smallest amounts of revenue, have begun to exploit one market that they have exclusive control over: their own property. With the help of a few eager marketing consultants, many governments are peddling the rights to place advertisements in public school cafeterias, on the sides of yellow school buses, in prison holding areas and in the waiting rooms of welfare offices and the Department of Motor Vehicles.”

The idea got its start in Colorado in the 1990s, and was picked up by Texas, Arizona, Tennessee and Massachusetts.  Now Utah has begun selling ads on the sides of it school buses and at least eight other states are considering doing the same.

This trend is a pitiful admission by governments of their own impotence.  They are unwilling to charge higher taxes lest businesses flee and residents balk, and they are equally unwilling to stand up for the civic sector as an expression of the common good.  So the path of least resistance prevails, and cities and towns debase themselves by in effect grubbing around for nickels and dimes:  ads on public property.

The sums raised by this process will not do much to reduce the billions of dollars of budget deficits -- buts the argument is always made that "every little bit helps."  Funny, but a "little tax increase" could handle the issue quite handily....but taxes have been so stigmatized that politicians would rather sell off the family jewels. 

According to the Times, A school district with 250 school buses could generate an estimated $1 million in revenue over four years – which comes out to about $1,000 per bus per year.  Districts with few buses (and therefore less “reach”) would likely earn less than that.  In Arizona, some schools are selling ads on their websites for $100 a month.  Other schools sell ads on parking spaces.
















All in all, the advertising demeans civil authority and self-governance, making government services come off as a poor, third-string alternative to the well-heeled private sector. 

The market cannibalization of civic services – through outright privatization and the market graffiti known as advertising – is symptomatic of a deeper malaise:  an unwillingness of American society to acknowledge that we have some larger, shared interests that trump the private and the pecuniary.  One way that we express that shared commitment is by honoring our public institutions as public institutions.  Another is through taxes.  A third is through the civic and social culture that we actively cultivate. 

I am reminded of a memorable piece that my recently departed friend Jonathan Rowe wrote on this topic which concluded:

It’s not just the schools. Piece by piece the civic landscape is collapsing under a deluge of commercial self-promotion. Sports stadiums, parks, and other spaces all are dropping civic names for corporate ones. Ballparks once were a kind of lyric poetry of place. Crosley Field meant Cincinnati. Briggs Stadium meant Detroit. Candlestick conjured up the San Francisco fog, and the wondrous Willie Mays. Now you hear Cinergy, Comerica, SBC, and you are everywhere and nowhere.

Then there’s Clark, Texas. This hamlet of 125 residents has agreed to change its name to DISH, which is a satellite TV system owned by Echo-Star Communications. In exchange, the residents will get free satellite TV for 10 years. When a locality sells its name – its identity – to a corporation, it is both the logical culmination of the trend, and an object lesson in what’s at stake.

In scriptural times, the bestowal of a name was an event of great significance. A name was an expression of character; and humans earned new ones in accordance with their inner growth. Jacob, after he spent the night wrestling with his demons, became Israel. His old name means “to seize by the heel.” His new one, “God will rule.” The places where such events occurred acquired new names, too. Jacob called the place of his trial Peniel, which means the “face of God.”

Places had meanings. Their names connected the outer landscape to the inner – to the shared identity of the people, and to that which they most valued. For most of its history, our nation followed a civic version of this same tradition. Our outer landscape mirrored our character, our values, and our past.

The strange part is, it’s not the “godless liberals” who have brought about this change. For the most part, it’s the same ideologues who lecture us about traditional values on other days. They cut taxes to the point that schools and the rest are desperate for funds. Colorado Springs District 11 was one of the first to sell ads on school buses. It was in a “fiscal crisis,” a spokeswoman there explained. “They couldn’t pass a bond or any kind of tax increase.”

Ergo, the Coke ads in schools. Across the nation, plaques to the young men and women who give their lives in Iraq now will have to share space with those.

Next time ideologues bemoan the decline in traditional values in America today, and how young people choose self-indulgence over service, they might look at the propaganda they have invited into the schools, and into the culture at large. Character comes with a price; and if you aren’t willing to pay it, don’t blame others when it is gone.