School advertising goes digital

Digital billboards that resemble large touch-screen tablets placed in schools in two Arizona districts
By: | Issue: April, 2015
March 16, 2015

Students in two Arizona districts will soon share the hallways with digital screens that display promotions for local and national vendors.

This technological incursion is furthering a national debate over whether or not this kind of marketing is appropriate for students, though it brings in much needed revenue for cash-strapped districts.

The digital billboards resemble large touch-screen tablets, and will be placed in schools in Sunnyside USD and Vail School District in southern Arizona. Part of the screen will be used for school announcements, and the other will host ads from companies such as Subway and Nike. The district can review the ads and reject any that administrators feel are inappropriate, says Sunnyside USD spokesperson Mary Veres.

School ad laws

More than 10 years ago, a report from the Government Accountability Office found that 32 states had adopted some form of legislation related to school commercialism, and most of these did not prevent marketing in schools. Little has changed since then, according to a 2014 report from the National Education Policy Center. Some 15 states allow advertising inside or outside of school buses, the report also states.

At Sunnyside USD, the first machines were scheduled to be implemented in February, but at the time of this writing, had been delayed. They will be installed at no cost to the district by a company called SkoolLive LLC, which will then sell ads for the space.

There will be 10 in each of the district’s two high schools, five in each middle school, and one in each elementary school. The machines should be installed in all of the district’s 20 schools by the fall, Veres says.

The district will receive 20 percent of the profits SkoolLive brings in, and estimates revenues of $200,000 per year for the 40 total kiosks. The district plans to give the funds to high school student councils, Veres says.

“It’s like a vending machineÑthey own and service it, and we enjoy the benefits,” Veres says. “In the day of child advertising markets, this is a good one, because we can determine what we want kids to see and what we don’t.”

A long history

Evidence of advertising in schools dates back to 1929. That year, a national Committee on Propaganda in the Schools led by superintendents concluded that advertising in schools was a “significant issue” not conducive to education.

Marketing has grown significantly in the United States since then, and has expanded further into schools as children became more of a target market, says Faith Boninger, a research associate at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. Children are a desirable demographic because they influence their parents’ spending decisions and are poised to become lifelong consumers, she adds.

The recession has brought renewed attention to advertising in schools as districts look for alternative funding sources.

“School budgets are pinched tight, and anything that seems like it will bring in money is of interest,” Boninger says. “There is also a pressure on districts to be in good relationships with the business community.”

Even when the district has some control over the advertisements shown, the ads can still discourage critical thinking, Boninger says.

“If there is marketing in school for a certain product, students believe it has been approved by the school and the teachers,” she adds. “Districts will say they are not endorsing this product, but from the child’s innocent perspective, they are.”