Published in the Albany Times Union, Friday, June 10, 2011
New York's school buses could become traveling billboards if state Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, and Assemblyman Steven Englebright, D-Suffolk County, get their way. They have introduced a bill that would amend education law to allow school buses to carry advertising.
Alcohol and tobacco advertising would be prohibited, of course. But New York's children, who are in the midst of an obesity epidemic, could be subjected to a blizzard of ads for sugary cereals, fast food, soda and other products -- courtesy of your local school board. Cities with populations of more than a million (New York City) would be exempt from the law, but the rest of the state could opt to collect this ill-advised advertising revenue.
It's understandable that schools are searching for new revenue sources while state education funding is being reduced. But it makes no sense to allow districts to hawk unhealthy foods or other products to New York's children. The state has the 18th-highest rate in the nation of overweight youths (ages 10-17) at 33 percent, according to Trust for America's Health. And 80 percent of overweight/obese adolescents become overweight/obese adults, putting them at an increased risk for chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, asthma, hypertension and some cancers.
To put into perspective how excited junk food and fast food marketers must be to have a possible new venue for reaching almost every kid in the state, note the enormous sums they already spend to target children. A 2006 Federal Trade Commission study of 44 companies found that food and beverage marketing to children and adolescents totaled some $1.6 billion. Approximately $870 million was spent on food marketing directed to children under 12.
New York's potential new school bus marketing would be visible to a captive audience of children at least twice daily. Plus, products advertised on a school bus will have that school district's implicit endorsement, whether the district intends it or not.
Marketers in all industries are keen to reach young audiences because this targeted marketing works. A Yale Rudd Center study that focused on McDonald's, which advertises heavily to the toddler to teen set, found 40 percent of parents report that their child asks to go to McDonald's at least once a week, while 15 percent of preschoolers ask to go every day.
Over the past decade, thanks to increased awareness and stronger nutrition standards, school districts across the state have been eliminating junk food and junk food advertising, and turning down contracts with companies like Pepsi and Coca-Cola.
It would be a huge step backward to create a new opportunity for predatory marketers to get to kids during the school day.
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood notes that advertising on buses won't even make a dent in schools' deficits.
School bus advertising in a Colorado Springs district with more than 27,000 students only generates $40,000, according to the news website Cincinnati.com. By selling ad space on its 103 buses, the Thompson School District in Colorado generated about $3,000 a year -- about 20 cents a student, according to School Transportation News. Ypsilanti, Mich., stopped placing ads on school buses when revenue fell far short of projections, Advertising Age reported.
We urge legislators to take a stand against predatory marketing by opposing S.3229/A.7701. Our schools should be free of advertising. We should not try to fund them at the expense of our children's health.
Nancy Huehnergarth is director of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance