SCHOOLS LEARNING NEW AD LESSONS: COLORADO SPRINGS DISTRICT SELLS SPACE ON BUSES, MAPS

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.-A school district here is showing that it may be time to park those yellow school buses of the past to make way for the moving outdoor boards of the future-all in the name of helping local schools pay their own way by soliciting advertising.

Schools in El Paso County District 11 are counting the cash they've earned in the past 13 months for ads carried everywhere from calendars, maps, parent newsletters and staff magazines to school hallways and buses.

The district, with about 32,000 students in 53 Colorado Springs schools, has so far raised $100,000. Of that, $59,000 will go to the district and the rest to O'Donnell & Riley, the local advertising agency charged with selling the space.

The most obvious result of District 11's ad sales is a group of brightly colored school buses, with side panels sporting ads for local businesses. So far, ads have been sold for 12 of the vehicles. The district is making 130 of its 150 buses available for ads.

Advertisers include the local Burger King Corp. franchisee, an electric utility, a 7UP franchise, King Soopers grocery stores, Kiddie Kutters hair salon and daycare provider Children's World, said Pat Riley, co-owner of O'Donnell.

Such a venture into overt capitalism might rattle education traditionalists, and school administrators anticipated criticism.

"We expected to hear people complain that kids are media-blitzed to death and now we're pumping commercials at them in school," said John Bushey, principal at Coronado High School.

But the community has been understanding.

"Even those who objected understood why we were doing it," said Tracy Cooper, district public relations officer.

School administrators believe their advertising program is the first in the U.S., and the National Education Association also says the effort is unique.

Colorado Springs' early success already appears to have encouraged the school board in Denver, 70 miles to the north, to pass a resolution Jan. 5 allowing Denver Public Schools to investigate a similar advertising program.

People involved with Colorado Springs' schools cite myriad factors that led District 11 down the advertising path. Since the 1989-90 school year enrollment has grown by 3,000, up 12.8%, a trend seen across the state as new residents flock to Colorado. Meanwhile District 11's budget has grown 14% to $131 million, although during the early '90s the district suffered due to state funding problems.

But the district isn't "trying to balance the budget with this [advertising] program," said District 11 Superintendent Kenneth Burnley, who was named 1993 national superintendent of the year by the American Association for School Administrators.

Revenue primarily goes into school activity funds for programs such as art and sports.

Mr. Burnley said he has long encouraged an "entrepreneurial environment" where schools can market themselves to the community in order to avoid freezing school programs to make up for budget shortfalls.

The genesis for the advertising program occurred in late 1992, when a task force was formed to examine permitting advertising in and around schools.

Parents were supportive once they had all the facts, said Mary Davis, president for the past two years of the El Paso Council Parent-Teacher Association.

The advertising plan was an easy sell to teachers and principals at cash-strapped schools.

"I had no misgivings whatsoever," recalled Mr. Bushey. O'Donnell won the contract since it was the only agency willing to work for commission, although the district subsequently paid $10,000 in start-up fees to have the shop take on the project.

The first ads were placed in January 1994, and so far most have targeted adults.

The school board has adopted a strict policy that forbids advertising for drugs, alcohol, tobacco or firearms, among other things. The district reserves broad veto powers for itself by also prohibiting advertising that "inhibits the functioning of the school" or "overrides the school's identity."

The local Burger King franchisee has bought the most bus space of any advertiser, paying the one-year rate of $12,500 for advertising on all five high school buses. The Burger King buses have become a source of pride for students because the side of each vehicle is adorned with mascots of the school it serves, carrying a relatively petite Burger King logo on each of the side rear fenders.

The developer of the "spirit bus" campaign is Denise Whinnen, director of corporate affairs for Pikes Peak Fast Food Restaurants, which operates the city's eight Burger King restaurants. Ms. Whinnen came up with the spirit bus idea as a "gesture of goodwill" that also could quash potential complaints about brainwashing students with a barrage of bigger-than-life school bus ads.

Mindful that Colorado Springs schools had to cut many arts programs, Ms. Whinnen asked O'Donnell to take the spirit bus plan to high school art teachers, who were charged with selecting student artwork for their respective schools' buses.

Advertisements within the schools are perhaps the most likely to raise controversy since they are marketing to a captive audience.

However, Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Colorado Springs used the wall space it bought to place encouraging messages of "community support and educational enhancement," said Diane Plass-meyer, the company's director of marketing and media.

Pepsi's ads combined the Pepsi "Ultimate challenge" tagline with the phrase, "Insure your tomorrow with good decisions today." The company paid $5,000 total to place two ads per high school in locker areas and cafeterias, Ms. Plassmeyer said.

Although District 11's nascent advertising program has successfully garnered attention from local businesses, the district has yet to score a national advertiser.

"The local folks understand the concept," Mr. Burnley said. But the lack of national attention doesn't upset him, he said, adding, "I personally don't want to overdo it."

But Ms. Riley would like to drum up some national business, something she sees as more of a possibility once other school districts follow District 11's lead. But she noted it will be more difficult explaining to national clients that the program isn't a charity event. "This is not a sponsorship program," said Ms. Riley. "It is an advertising project."

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