A Captive Audience of Kids


June 15, 2006


Browse in Advertising Childhood

Corporations seek to dominate space. First it was physical space, and now it is mental space – what is called, in marketing argot, “mindshare.” The political Right seeks to cut taxes to shrink the public sphere, or “starve the beast” in Grover Norquist’s phrase. Put the two together and what do you get? You get corporations laying claim to common space, and to the minds of those who occupy it.

The latest example is BusRadio, a company in Massachusetts that is going to install special radio receivers in school buses, so it can fill the airspace in them with ads aimed at kids. School districts starved for funds will get a cut of the ad revenues. BusRadio will get a captive audience of impressionable kids that it can sell to corporate advertisers eager to get inside their minds. The compulsory school laws will become the means to corral these captive kids and deliver them to the sponsors.

Thank you Grover. Good thing we eased the burden on trust fund babies by cutting the estate tax, and on the country club crowd generally. Otherwise local school boards might not be so vulnerable to come-ons such as this.

BusRadio says it will have over 100,000 children in its daily sphere of influence in Massachusetts alone this fall. It has signed contracts with districts in California, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois as well. Next year, it plans to reach over a million children, and to grow from there. The kids will hear music, patter, and eight minutes of ads per hour to start (not counting “product placements” that might be imbedded in the other offerings.)

BusRadio executives cast the network as a public service. The music will be “appropriate”, the patter uplifting; kids will sit quietly instead of getting into fights. Their pitch to potential advertisers is more candid. “BusRadio will take targeted student marketing to the next level,” their Web site enthuses. Advertisers will get “a unique and effective way to reach the highly sought after teen and tween market.”

First it was Channel One that brought ads into the classroom. Now it’s BusRadio and ads inside the bus. The executives behind BusRadio already have a company called “Cover Concepts” that distributes free book covers to schools that are loaded with ads for McDonald’s, Nike, and other national brands. Cover Concepts says that 30 million kids use the covers, in 43,000 U.S. public schools. Do you see a pattern?

It’s not one that I, as a parent, want to encourage. We do not entrust our children to school administrators so they can become “targets” for corporations that want to stake claims inside their minds. And what gives public officials the right to sell our children to these corporations in the first place. That’s what they are doing – selling our kids’ attention. This sounds a little like involuntary servitude.

As for the argument that BusRadio will keep kids quiet – well, Prozac might do the same. That doesn’t mean drivers should hand it out at the start of every trip.

There are people in high places who need a good yank on the chain. That’s especially the case for politicians who talk about family values but won’t stand up to corporations that invade and violate those values. With that in mind, I co-wrote a letter to Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. Here’s the text, plus a link to the Web site of the group called Commercial Alert that fights corporate trespass such as this. Follow the link to find out more.


Dear Governor Romney:

Every day, the parents of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts entrust their children to you for the purpose of education. On no other matter is your duty as an elected official so constant and direct. It is one thing to maintain the roads and sewers. It is quite another for parents to send their children to the public schools – which means, ultimately to you—as the law requires them to do.

The compulsory school laws exist for one reason: education and the building of character. That purpose, which most parents share, is the basis of the widespread consent to these laws. Public education in Massachusetts is a public trust. As governor, your job is to make absolutely sure that there is no abuse of the trust that parents put in the schools and in yourself.

That trust has been threatened in recent years, as commercial forces have attempted to seize upon the schools for their own ends. These forces are trying to turn the compulsory school laws into a means of corralling a captive audience of impressionable children, for commercial gain. First it was Channel One, which brought television advertising into school classrooms in the guise of a daily “news” show. Now it’s BusRadio, which literally is going to turn school buses into a means to deliver the captive ears of children to corporate advertisers.

BusRadio has proposed to install its equipment on school buses throughout the Commonwealth. Beginning this September, the company plans to subject over 100,000 Massachusetts schoolchildren to its advertising scheme. The company says it plans to target children in elementary school, which means children as young as five.

Children would have to listen to music, service spots, and eight minutes of commercial advertising per hour. They would have no choice, and neither would their parents. The compulsory school laws would become a pretext for compulsory listening to commercial propaganda. In addition, you would be intentionally interfering with the ability of students’ to read, pray or do homework on the school bus.

The people behind BusRadio do not portray themselves that way of course. They talk about safety, “age appropriate” music and DJ talk, among other things. It is pretty clear they have done their market research, and know what parents and school administrators want to hear. The company’s pitch to potential advertisers is more candid. “BusRadio will take targeted student marketing to the next level,” it enthuses. Advertisers will get “a unique and effective way to reach the highly sought after teen and tween market.”

BusRadio has boasted that the ads for one movie it pushed at kids “received recall rates in the 90% range” – that is, over 90% of school children remembered the advertising.

Is this what the schools of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are for – to “take targeted student marketing to the next level” and boost “recall rates” for ads targeting children as young as five? Is it the purpose of the compulsory school laws to provide a “unique and effective way” for corporate advertisers to bypass parents and speak directly to kids in a captive setting? Is this the model of education that you stand for and want to hold out to the nation?

We know that it is not easy to stand up to commercial forces in this nation. They want to insinuate themselves into everything, especially when it comes to kids. But just as we teach our children to say “no,” so leaders have to say “no” too, even when it is inconvenient. Education is about character. It is not about enabling the commercial seduction of the kids entrusted to the schools, however beguiling the package in which that seduction is wrapped.

This is an opportunity for you to set an example of moral principle for the whole nation. BusRadio is knocking on the door. Just say no. Expel them from every school bus in Massachusetts.


Jonathan Rowe, Issues Director
Gary Ruskin, Executive Director