Hollywood High is short on Advanced Placement textbooks and state-of-the-art equipment for its New Media Academy magnet. Suddenly, a billboard company comes along offering … free money! Just let us put an electronic billboard — or two or three — on your well-located campus, the company says.
It must've seemed like a gift from the heavens. So the school approached the L.A. Unified school board, asking for permission to erect a billboard on campus at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Highland Avenue. The billboard would display two signs facing the street (and none toward the school); no alcohol or tobacco advertising would be allowed. Money would flow in.
Sounds good, doesn't it? The benefits are clear. Yet the L.A. Unified school board should cast a wary eye on this proposal.
Marketing on school campuses has had a checkered career. Schools have taken money in the past to provide exclusive access to one soda company or another — thus encouraging the consumption of large amounts of sugar by students as well as loyalty to a particular brand. One school in Georgia even suspended a student for wearing a Pepsi shirt on "Coke Day," when the school was seeking to win a contest sponsored by Coca-Cola Co. In another case, ads for psychics, websites offering sexual content and other questionable material were shown to students by the Channel One company in return for educational programming that was otherwise free. A school in Laguna Beach used menus featuring pictures of smiling M&Ms to tout healthful eating.
Ultimately, the real villain in these marketing-run-amok situations isn't so much Coke, Pepsi or M&Ms but the chronically insufficient funding of education, which gives schools incentives to pander to big companies and wealthy advertisers. Campuses shouldn't have to erect billboards in order for kids to get textbooks. L.A. Unified may not be wise about how it spends every penny, but at the same time, California's per-pupil spending is about half that of New York state.
It's tempting to say that given the low level of funding, L.A. Unified should just approve the ads and get students what they need. And there might be circumstances under which a well-scrutinized advertising deal is the best choice among less-than-perfect options.
But there are special concerns about the billboard proposal, including questions about what would be banned other than ads for tobacco and alcohol. Would R-rated movies be appropriate content? (Remember that students coming in and out of the school would be major viewers of the ads regardless of which way the signs face.) How about strip clubs? Surely the district, which has put tremendous effort into serving more nutritious meals, shouldn't allow ads for junk food or fast food. Gambling would presumably be out. A district panel would have approval rights over the billboards, but if it says no to everything, the signs won't make money.
Depending on how many billboards the district allows, how big they are and where they're placed at Hollywood High, the deal could bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. That's great, unless the school comes to rely on the money for basic equipment and services. If that happened, the company could demand more inappropriate ads or bigger signs and could threaten to take its business elsewhere if it were refused — and school officials would find themselves under pressure to yield.
Meanwhile, not only does the school district have a rule prohibiting most advertisements on school property (which would have to be suspended for this deal to move forward), but the city of Los Angeles has imposed a moratorium for the moment on any additional digital billboards within city limits while officials develop permanent rules for when and how they should be allowed. L.A. Unified, which acts as its own permitting agency, is refusing to answer whether it would submit to the city's stipulations and honor the moratorium, saying only that it would consult with the city. It should go further than that and promise to abide by city rules.
The district also would have to figure out a way to spread the revenue equitably. If billboard advertising is extended to other schools, it would be unfair for some schools, by virtue of the corner on which they happen to be located, to swim in extra money while other schools are still not able to find the money for textbooks.
The school board is a long way from resolving these issues satisfactorily and shouldn't rush its decision just because one company has made an offer to one school. Meanwhile, the state's legislative analyst is predicting an increase in school funding next year that should amount to several hundred dollars per student. The board should direct as much of that money as possible to students' needs, including perhaps those textbooks at Hollywood High, while it takes its time considering the serious issue of cutting deals with billboard companies.