Only commercial enterprises can advertise on Charlottesville buses.
We won't see this ad on the side of a city bus.
Online ad courtesy Stephanie Koehler/SKAinterMedia
As Charlotte Ding drove behind a public bus in Rochester, New York, an advertisement on the back of the vehicle pleading for help with an unsolved murder grabbed the former Charlottesville resident's attention– and sparked a brainstorm.
"I thought it would be a great way to draw attention to the Morgan Harrington case in Charlottesville," says Ding, who relocated to New York last year but still volunteers for the Harrington family's nonprofit ad campaign Help Save the Next Girl. Excited at the prospect of raising awareness about the mystery around the second anniversary of the discovery of Morgan's remains on January 26, Ding contacted Charlottesville Area Transit in late January ready to make a bus-side ad purchase. She didn't get far.
"I was told the ad wouldn't be accepted," says Ding, noting that the charity had been prepared to pay full price– about $250 per ad per month. "I couldn't believe it," says Ding. "Why wouldn't they want the money?"
"We only accept ads from commercial businesses," explains Transit marketing director Kristen Gleason, who says the no-nonprofit ad policy has been in place for years, prior to her 2008 assumption of that position.
Why wouldn't agencies like the Red Cross or the United Way be able to advertise on Charlottesville buses when they're welcomed on buses in many other Virginia localities?
"It's a clean policy to make sure the city doesn't get in any trouble," says Charlottesville Deputy City Attorney Richard Harris, who notes that the policy– which Harris says was implemented a couple of years before his own 2004 hiring– reflects the city's desire to avoid legal woes that could arise if buses carried controversial messages, particularly of a religious or political nature. Since the First Amendment prohibits restricting speech based on content, he says, every nonprofit was banned from buses.
That's not the approach taken in Rochester, New York, where Ding saw the ad that inspired her.
"The spots that we wouldn't run would be considered offensive to our riders and the general public," says Shelly Dinan, spokesperson for the Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority. Political and religious ads are allowed, Dinan says, assuming the messages meet decency standards, and she says there have been no problems during her 18 months on the job.
In some other Virginia markets, religious and political ads are banned, but other nonprofits are welcome to advertise on buses, says Tim Brazil of Media Transit, the outsource agency that sells bus ads in areas including Richmond, Lynchburg, and Harrisonburg. In fact, says Brazil, nonprofits are encouraged to advertise on buses through an offer that gives them twice the space for the price of one ad.
"It's frustrating when you're promoting a cause that helps people," says Kim Connolly, United Way Thomas Jefferson Area spokesperson, noting that bus ads are affordable and reach a wide range of people. Still, Connolly adds, "I understand why they have the policy."
Not everyone is sympathetic to the City's method of avoiding a possible First Amendment controversy.
"This is really something out of the theater of the absurd," says city resident Kevin Cox, pointing out the city government's support of the First Amendment monument in front of City Hall, a chalkboard that frequently features controversial– even offensive– messages as well as crude images of nudity and sex acts.
Unlike the monument, Cox notes, ads on buses are a source of revenue– something the city claims to be short of just now.
"The city is scrambling to find money for the schools, and here they are rejecting money from people willing to pay it?" Cox asks.
Transit head Bill Watterson, however, notes that bus ads are unlikely to solve any major fiscal gaps. With revenue of just $97,000 last year, ad sales accounted for less than two percent of CAT's $6 million operating budget; and, he adds that the city's early 2000's decision to bring ad sales in-house has saved CAT the 25 percent commission it had been paying an outside agency.
Still, Watterson concedes that only 62 of the 70 available slots are currently occupied by ads for paying businesses. Charlotte Ding wishes a picture of Morgan Harrington, the sketch of her unidentified killer, and the tip line phone number could fill a few– and catch a killer.
"Now is the perfect time to run the sketch face," says Ding, who contends that public transportation is an ideal vehicle for spreading a message about an unsolved crime. "The buses," she says, "go everywhere in the city."