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AFN ads for universities seem to contradict commercial ban

By LISA M. NOVAK | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 15, 2008

AFN Europe’s guidelines ban commercial advertising, but that doesn’t mean viewers won’t see it.

Watchers of American Forces Network have seen ads touting University of Phoenix online classes, along with ads for Central Texas College, University of Maryland and others over the past year.

The University of Phoenix ads stand out for a number of reasons. They’re professional quality, produced by their marketing department, and include the catchy music of the group New Pornographers. They’re also the same ads that run on stateside television stations.

So why does AFN run these ads, as opposed to ads from other entities doing business on military installations? That’s what Al Fowler at Bagram air base, Afghanistan, wants to know. Fowler wrote a letter to Stars and Stripes, saying he was tired of the ads and asked why AFN allows these “free endorsements.”

“We make judgment calls based on our guidelines, and we feel putting this information on the air is beneficial to the community,” said George Smith, AFN Europe operations manager.

However beneficial the ads might be, their airing seems to contradict the official guidelines governing broadcast standards for AFN.

“If AFN aired stateside commercials, we’d have to pay for the entertainment programming along with them, and we simply cannot afford to do that. As it stands now, we get America’s highest-rated shows like ‘CSI’ and ‘American Idol’ for little or no cost because we are a service oriented, not-for-profit government entity. Another aspect of being a government entity is that we have a mission, and ours is to provide command information to our audience,” according to the AFN Web site.

The mention of brand names is permitted — only if central to a news story.

A reason offered by the network for allowing the advertising was the schools’ need to meet enrollment goals.

“The universities operate on a thin margin. If not enough people show up, the classes won’t happen,” Smith explained.

In the case of University of Phoenix, their online format makes it easier to fill class quotas. Their margin can hardly be described as thin.

According to 2007 annual report for Apollo Group Inc., the parent company for the university, it is “the largest publicly held, for-profit provider of education in the country.” Revenues for 2007 exceeded $2.7 billion, with net earnings of more than $408 million.

Aside from the university ads, there is another AFN spot viewers might be familiar with. It’s the one explaining why no commercial advertising is permitted on the network.


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