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Car 54, Where's Your Ad?

In an era when sports stadiums, subway stops, and even city garbage trucks are considered fair game for corporate sponsorship, it seems law-enforcement vehicles are the next public space to succumb to the advertising industry's unending desire to reach consumers at every possible viewing point.

Already, some 45 cities across the country have caved in to such temptation in a deal apparently too good to pass up (at least on the surface) – a spanking new police cruiser for just one dollar, if the cities agree that those police cars can sport local, and/or national, advertising for three years.

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More than 250 other cities have shown interest, according to consumer watchdog, Commercial Alert.

A South Carolina-based company is matching up cities with businesses to place the ads, but with a few caveats: no ads for alcohol, tobacco, firearms, or gambling on the cars.

That leaves the imagination free to roam: How about a police car pitching a local bail-bond company? More seriously, supporters argue that this is a cheap way for cities on tight budgets to increase their police presence, and for businesses to support local cops.

But what about a possible conflict of interest, in which, say, a business has an ad on a police cruiser but then is subject to a police probe? Criminal-justice experts also warn that the moral authority of police can be undermined by driving around in cars with commercial sponsorship.

A similar problem of mixing public institutions with crass commercialism arises when schools sell advertising space to companies trying to win the attention and cash of students.

Selling out for money is not the answer. Cities can appeal to citizens for more tax money, or find other ways to address their budget problems.

Leave the ads for the cabs.