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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Take Your Pick

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

A recent (very small) story in Sunday's newspaper carried theheadline: "Police cruisers in Ill. sport ads". It seems that starting last Friday, eight police cruisers in St. Clair County, Illinois became "moving billboards" by carrying the message "BARCOM - First Alert Professional Security Systems" on both front fenders. The Barcom Security Company ispaying the Sheriff's Department $6,500 for a three-year contract to advertise on the bumpers of police vehicles.

Sheriff Mearl Justus (?) said that his department "has set out some restrictions" on the nature of future ads on police cruisers to insure good taste (Does that mean no ads for donut shops?), because other advertisershave already expressed interest, you see. And he's announced that the money will go into his Drug Awareness and Resistance Education program. Too bad. It ought to go into a media literacy education fund.

National and state law enforcement officials report that this is the first time (to the best of their knowledge) that police squad cars have carried ads.

I must admit that I was surprised by this story, not just because squad cars have started advertising and not even because the company advertising is in the "professional security" business. Whether this is a conflict of interest is up to lawyers and police officials, not me. As I say, I was surprised. But I was not scandalized by it.

We're witnessing in America the spreading of ads to nearly every surface in every endeavor in every part of life today. Watch a baseball game and there are ads in and above the bleachers. There are ads on the inside and outside of MBTA busses. Race cars are emblazoned with so many ads that it's difficult to read them all. Companies "sponsor" athletic and charity events to get their name before the public.

In schools, too, there are ads: halftone ads on the free classroom calendars one soft drink company makes available, ads on free bookcovers given away to students, ads on the boards of the ice rink and on the scoreboard down at the football field, ads in the program booklet for the Spring Musical and the Yearbook and the student newspaper. And, of course, there are ads on Channel One. There are ads and logos on T-shirts and hatsthe kids wear, ads in the magazines in the library. And when the Apple computer folks years ago decided to sell Apple and Macintosh computers to schools at cut-rate prices (so that kids would spend 12 years working on an Apple product rather than on an IBM) -- well, wasn't that a brilliant "ad"campaign?

So I'm not shocked.

I mean, I'm not THRILLED by all this advertising, but I'm not shocked that it's encroaching into areas hitherto considered sacrosanct. I stopped being shocked years ago when the local church began carrying ads in its weekly bulletin.

Two forces are at work here, as far as I can see. One is simply thatwe live in a capitalist society. Free enterprise and freedom of speech --the freedom to make a buck -- seem to carry with them the freedom for businesses to advertise, to tell people about the stuff they're offering for sale or the service they're willing to perform. That's the American Way. No, I'm not being sarcastic or bitter. To a very large extent, that's what has made our standard of living what it is today.

The other force (at least as it relates to schools, churches, andpolice departments) is the public's unwillingness to adequately fund these services. I mean, if there were a way to put a TV into every classroom and wire a closed-circuit system and provide a daily newscast to students WITHOUT ads, I have no doubt that Billerica would have jumped at the chance. I doubt if our local churches WANT to run ads in their bulletins; it's probably a financial necessity. And Sheriff Justus in Illinois probably feels the sameway about his anti-drug program. Had there been enough money to fund it adequately, he wouldn't have even considered putting ads on police cruisers.

But as far as I know, there are only two places to get funding for worthwhile endeavors -- the public sector and the private sector. It's one or the other. Take your pick.

And as America continues to choose to reduce or limit public funding for worthwhile and necessary projects, the private sector has stepped in.

It is a shame.

Not that they've stepped in to fill the void.

But it's a shame that there's a void for them to step into.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.