TUSD buses to carry ads next year
Positive messages might bring in six-figure money

September 25, 2005 | By Daniel Scarpinato

Beginning next spring, your son’s or daughter’s bus ride to school may be brought to you courtesy of a car dealer or a clothing chain as TUSD buses get slapped with ads.

And if all goes as expected, the wheels on the bus will do much more than go round-and-round—they’ll bring in as much as six figures.

As the first local district to allow bus advertising, Tucson Unified School District is carefully emphasizing the positives.

The ads will feature phrases chosen by the sponsor such as “I have the power to be peaceful” and “Education is opportunity—stay in school,” with a logo or name of a company sponsoring the blurb.

There are specific rules for placement of the 2-by-9-foot ads on the standard 40-foot buses. They can appear only on the sides and they can’t extend over windows, doors or state-required printing.

Ads promoting drugs, alcohol, tobacco, firearms, religion, politics, and charter or private schools are not allowed. Each ad must be approved by a group of parents and educators and needs a final OK from the district board.

The move comes after a 4-0 vote by the TUSD governing board last week. Board member Judy Burns, who did not support the measure, was absent.

Placed on both sides of the bus, a pair of ads would net $1,200 to $1,400 a year.

A study by University of Arizona business and public administration graduate students projected TUSD could make a total of $120,000 annually on the ads, after a marketing firm is paid to sell and make them.

Allowing the “tame” ads on as many as 300 buses in TUSD, the area’s largest school system, signals a trend likely to spread in Arizona, officials say.

In TUSD, the money will be used only for bus improvements, said Bill Ball, transportation director for the 60,000-student district. Specifically, the money will purchase new vehicles, retrofit old ones to make them cleaner-burning, or buy alternative fuels, a move Ball and others say will improve air quality and student health.

“We’re going into it cautiously,” Ball said. “We all believe there is still a certain sanctity to a school bus.”

Ads are showing up on yellow school buses coast to coast as schools look for new ways to raise money, and the idea has been publicly discussed in TUSD since last year.

Two other school systems in Arizona—Scottsdale and Paradise Valley—have started similar efforts, and there’s a wave of interest at districts from Yuma to Lake Havasu City, said Jim O’Connell, a principal partner with Media Advertising in Motion, which sells the ads for districts and is one of the companies TUSD is considering.

Typically, districts contract with marketing companies like O’Connell’s, which keeps roughly 50 percent of profits.

Now that the TUSD campaign has garnered board approval, a competitive bid will go out and the ads could be on local buses as early as January, Ball said.

Jason Simmons, 27, lives on the East Side and has a son in kindergarten who sometimes rides the bus to Borton Primary Magnet School, 700 E. 22nd St.

Simmons likes the idea of the billboards on buses “as long as the money goes to the school district. I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

He likes the positive messages of the ads. “That’s a plus. It would be something they’d see every day, something that impacts them and their lives,” he said.

Others are skeptical.

Vicky Yescas, 21, has a niece who rides the bus to Bonillas Basic Curriculum Magnet School, 4757 E. Winsett Blvd., from the South Side. Yescas picks up her niece about two or three times a week.

“Why do they have to target school buses?” she asked. “School buses aren’t made for ads. They are made for transportation.”

Even the four board members who voted for the measure did so with some uneasiness. That’s why they’ll review each ad and check back on the policy in a year.

But for a generation of kids who are aggressively marketed to, the ads may have little effect. School marquees are already sponsored by local companies. Sports uniforms have the logos of the companies that make them.

“They’re so logo-washed, so heavily branded when they are young,” said William Strauss, a nationally known author and lecturer who studies generations. “It’s really hard for marketers to reach them,” he said of those born after 1981.

And TUSD’s revenue projections could be high.

Paradise Valley School District has made a fraction of what it anticipated when it first allowed the ads five years ago, said Jeff Cook, transportation director for the Phoenix-area district.

Ads generate $25,000 to $50,000 year, he said, less than the six figures hoped for. With new school buses costing more than $100,000, the money doesn’t go too far.

The district’s policy is almost identical to TUSD’s. The ads aren’t generating the expected money because of the nature of the ads, Cook said. The message is first, while the ad buyer is second.

But TUSD is willing to give it a shot, said Ball, convinced companies will get on board.