Notes from school: Your ad here.

I’m not sure whether this classifies as breakthrough media or just a bad idea, but a school district in Salem, MA will soon be putting ads on the back of written communications sent home from schools. Notices, reminders, and permission slips will feature business card-size ads – ten per sheet. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, given the state of the economy. And for education systems that are already underfunded, some are taking matters into their own hands.

I wish I could say they are the first public service that has done this, but others have been implementing similar tactics for some time. Take the Georgia Department of Transportation, for instance. Its Highway Emergency Response Operator (H.E.R.O.) trucks, uniforms, and signs have been sporting State Farm logos for over a year now. The sponsorship brings $1.7 million per year for the next three years to the D.O.T. To citizens, this smacks of a government sellout. To the government agency fighting budget deficits, it’s another revenue stream. To the advertiser, it’s a savvy business decision (and a pretty smart one, I might add).

As a parent, I was a bit miffed at the notion of using children as advertising mules and turning personal moments of communication into opportunities to sell tires or spa treatments. Somehow when the D.O.T. aligns with an insurance company, it makes perfect sense, but when we’re talking about our schools, it just seems wrong. I know, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to debate such things. Public institutions would stay independent of businesses. But I also know that times have changed, and money is tight.

Setting my personal feelings aside, I also have to wonder if this is even a good idea for the advertisers in this scenario. For $300, you can have the opportunity to promote your company among nine other companies, thereby transforming your child’s permission slip into one of those ad shoppers you get in the mail every week. I don’t know about anybody else, but I throw those things away most of the time without looking at them.

Will the ad even be seen amongst the clutter contained on a letter-size sheet of paper? Will the ad be a boon to your business, or will it have a negative impact on people’s perceptions of it? One may never know until the damage is done.

Maybe if the ads and advertisers have some tie to education, and there were some incentives, like discounts on school-related stuff, it would make the whole situation palatable as well as useful to its recipients. At least it would make more sense to me.

Whether these efforts are an effective and compelling way of engaging a consumer or a complete disaster is yet to be seen. Only time will tell. In the meantime, school administrators are still developing guidelines for this program. They are planning to test it in the elementary schools first and then eventually roll it out system wide, if all goes well.

What do you think? Would you give the program an A for effort or an F for going too far?

— Kurt Miller, Associate Creative Director

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