Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Economics of School Bus Advertising

As the economic pressures on school districts intensify, more and more are considering turning to school bus advertising as a way of ameliorating their budget woes. The impulse is understandable, but it would be great if more school boards did their homework before deciding to make compulsory exposure to school bus ads a part of children’s school day. In addition to being ethically unsound, school bus ads just don’t pay.

Consider the case of Sumner County, Tennessee: the Board of Education has just filed a lawsuit against 1st Class Marketing for failing to properly pay the school district for ads sold on the district’s buses. The board’s contract with the marketing firm called for 60% of ad sales to go to the district. But to date, they’ve only received $5,422 of more than $47,000 in ad sales, so they are suing for the remaining $22,875 they claim they are owed.

So in a best-case scenario, the Sumner County board will recover that money and hopefully its court costs. That means the district would generate $28,297 in revenue from school bus advertising for school year 2010-11.

Now I know $28K is nothing to sneeze at, but let’s put that in perspective. The district’s annual budget is $180 million a year. In the best case, the school bus ads will account for about .015 percent of the district’s annual budget. Or to put it another way: ads will generate about $1.03 for each of the 27,369 students in the district. Sumner County spent $6,577 per student last school year.

And that’s if everything turns out right. If the board is unable to recoup the money it’s owed, or if it accrues significant legal fees, or if it has to devote more staff time to the dispute, the ads could actually cost the district money.

The numbers for Sumner County are consistent with what I’ve seen other places. If districts sell ad space on their buses, it’s fair to say they can expect to generate between $.50 and $1.50 per student each year.

I’m often asked, “Isn’t it better to allow school bus advertising than to lay off dozens of teachers?” It’s a compelling and heartbreaking hypothetical, but one that has little to do with the real choices school districts are facing. A better question for educators would be: “Are you really willing to sell out your students for a dollar a kid?”
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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Who Put McDonald's in Charge of Kids' Health?

When McDonald’s sneezes, the media jumps. Such was the case yesterday when the fast food giant announced it was giving the Happy Meal a makeover. Well not really, but that’s how it got reported, because the media loves simple stories. But when it comes to marketing and PR by multinational corporations, nothing is ever that simple.

While my colleagues have done a great job of explaining why nutritionally, this move is little more than PR (see Marion Nestle and Andy Bellatti), missing from the analysis so far is this: what McDonald’s really wants is to remain in charge.

The fast food giant’s motivation beyond the obvious positive PR spin is to stave off more laws like the one passed in San Francisco to set nutrition standards for Happy Meals, not to mention lawsuits like the one filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest based on deceptive marketing.

No doubt McDonald’s is gearing up to challenge the San Francisco ordinance in court the minute it goes in effect later this year. A similar bill has been proposed New York City while other localities wait to see the legal outcome. Now, McDonald’s gets to claim to any lawmaker or judge who will listen: “We don’t need no stinking laws, we got it covered with our new and improved Happy Meals. We got the message loud and clear, so now we’re cleaning up act all on our own. Nothing to see here, move along.”

As I explained in my book, Big Food announcements of improved corporate behavior are for two reasons only: positive PR and staving off government regulation (and in this case, more litigation).

While the former is more obvious, the latter should cause you to ask: Who is in charge here? McDonald’s ultimate goal is to make as little change as possible to get media attention (and praise from the likes of the first lady), while distracting policymakers from doing its job setting the boundaries of corporate behavior.

One argument I often hear about why we should praise these sort of industry moves is that “it’s a step in the right direction.” But in what direction exactly? A direction in which McDonald’s and friends continue to get to call all the shots for how we eat and how our children are marketed to? What is the end game in a world where we accept “incremental change” from corporations who answer only to shareholders? Somehow I don’t see that in 200 more steps Happy Meal boxes will morph into CSA boxes full of fresh, local produce.

Rather than praise corporations like McDonald’s for such meaningless and most likely temporary “improvements” let’s call them out for the distractions they are. We can at least celebrate that years of advocacy efforts to curb marketing to children is causing McDonald’s to take notice, as lame as it is.

Then let’s get back to the much harder job of policy change: to convince our democratically-elected leaders (or judges if that’s what it takes) that McDonald’s should not be allowed to market to children, period. No matter how many ounces of French fries or apple slices Happy Meals contain.
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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Commercialism Corner

Commercialism Corner: Your one-stop shop for quick summaries and links to all the latest news about the commercialization of childhood.

Critics: FCC Not Policing Kids TV – Along with parent and child advocacy groups (including CCFC), lawmaker Rep. Ed Markey is pointing out that the FCC’s enforcement of laws regarding children’s programming and commercials is “weak.”

Junk Food Industry Determined to Target Kids – CCFC Steering Committee member Michele Simon on the IWG’s proposed food marketing principles and extreme push back they’re meeting from the industry in Food Safety News.

Toy Movies in 2011 - Has Hollywood Gone Too Far? The toy industry is concerned that movies based on toys don’t bring in as much cash that they used to, and that there are too many of them.  “In short, you cannot get good films if the sole purpose of the movie is to sell you stuff.”

GAO: Children’s TV Rules Better Enforced on Broadcast Than Cable
- A new report finds that rules on advertising to children on cable and satellite are easily skirted and recommends that the FCC create a strategy to ensure children are not exposed to excessive or inappropriate advertising.

Lawmakers Push for Children’s Online Privacy Law – Congressional representatives stress the importance of protecting children from online tracking, but the FCC falls short of expressing support of (or opposition to) a bill introduced by Markey and Barton that would address the problem.

Sony PlayStation Ramps Advertising Technology For Brands
– PlayStation introduces new methods of in-game advertising.  For example, in one ad, a character from the game sprays himself with Axe body spray, which allows a chance at more points.  Ford, Toyota, and Wrigley are among the advertisers on PSP.

Summer TV’s Top Target: Boys
– Television shows like Disney’s Phineas and Ferb are looking to hook young male viewers, as well as build a major male-dominating franchise.
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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Commercialism Corner

Commercialism Corner: Your one-stop shop for quick summaries and links to all the latest news about the commercialization of childhood.

Summer TV's Top Target: Boys – Children’s TV programmers and marketers team up to aggressively push video games, toys, Nesquik, Kraft Mac & Cheese, Kellogg's Fruit Snacks and much more to boys this summer.

Industries Lobby Against Voluntary Nutrition Guidelines for Food Marketed to Kids –The media industry and food marketers align to lobby against the Interagency Working Group's new voluntary food marketing principles for ads aimed at kids.

No Junk Food Ads? No Jobs, ANA Says – US Association of National Advertisers claims that job losses should prevent food marketing regulations and forms the “Sensible Food Policy Coalition,” which includes Kellogg, PepsiCo, Viacom and other industry members.

Despite Best Efforts, Kids Are Still TV Junkies – Canadian meta-analysis on efforts to reduce children’s screen time in hopes of getting kids to lose weight finds interventions largely unsuccessful. But keeping kids away from screens at an early age was found to be part of the solution.

Scoreboards Will Ring Up Ad Dollars for Tacoma Schools
– CCFC’s Associate Director Josh Golin speaks out against new ad-supported scoreboards coming to high schools in Tacoma, WA.

Lake County School Board Wants Advertising to Help Fill Budget Gaps
– Josh Golin comments on a Florida district considering okaying corporate ads in schools.
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