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School Buses Now Roll With Ads

Advertisers nationwide are paying big bucks to turn school buses into rolling billboards. The trend pleases educators at cash-starved school districts but disgusts some consumer advocates.

School districts say they need the money, but critics say these advertising messages are the last things youngsters need. The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith spoke to representatives on both sides.

Colorado Spring's School District 11 started selling ads on their school buses in 1993 out of pure desperation for dough at a time when pushing through a local tax increase proved impossible. Elaine Naleski, director of communications for the district, says community leaders told school officials, "You need to find some alternative funding methods to fund the schools. You're not going to get a tax increase. Be entrepreneurial."

This year, the district will collect about $650,000 for a contract that combines the bus advertisements and Coca-Cola vending. And, Naleski says, "taxpayers appreciate it."

But Gary Ruskin, executive director of the consumer group Commercial Alert, calls advertising on school buses "commercial exploitation of vulnerable, impressionable schoolchildren. We send them to school to read and write and add and think, not to clobber them with advertising." He predicts that the companies who want to reach school children with advertising inevitably are those selling "junk food and soda pop."

Ruskin sees this as one unwelcome addition to the barrage of commercial messages that is leading, he says, to "an epidemic of marketing-related diseases" such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, which are on the increase because of unhealthy eating habits.

He also argues that the use of advertising on a school vehicle gives the added power of a teacher's authority to the advertiser's message to children.

But Colorado Spring's Naleski says that the advertisements are on the outside of the bus, and the messages are aimed not at the children inside but at the general public outside the vehicle. In talking to children in her district, she says, she has found that most don't know or care what signs are on the buses.

She also says that most of Colorado Spring's school bus advertising is not for junk food or soda but for local doctors and local merchants.

Ruskin says it's "a national shame" that many school districts are starved for cash, "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 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."

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