Where are the Super Bowl-esque ads about public transportation?

Posted on February 25, 2016 by Paul Mackie - Also by this author

This blog originally appeared on Mobility Lab.

When it comes to communicating that people have transportation options besides their own drive-alone cars, the transit industry is getting its lunch handed to it, and has been for decades.

It must face that it’s a fringe player that wants to become mainstream. And it’s not getting any easier. While we hear so many great stories about options presented by bikeshare systems and technology and Uber, the fact remains that people are buying cars more than ever.

Take the people who attend TransportationCamps, for instance. They are clearly transportation experts, but then again, just about every single American is a transportation enthusiast by way of traveling every day. And 95% of U.S. households have cars. Most of us love our cars, or at least have been seriously duped into thinking we love our cars.

So communicating to people that we don’t truly love our cars is a tough path to take for transportation advocates. Where an opening may be is that so many people hate driving, especially for the purpose of commuting.

The fact that we’re a car country is stating the obvious. Fifty-three percent of Americans want more spending on roads and 40% want more spending on transit. That stat actually seems pretty generous to transit.

But I don’t think advocates should make this a road versus transit thing. It’s best to learn from cars and from the auto industry. The Super Bowl, for example, is filled with car ads (there were at least 14 during this month’s Super Bowl 50), but driving is rarely like the ways the auto industry represents it in the ads.

A still from a recent Super Bowl car ad.
A still from a recent Super Bowl car ad.
Do the car companies care about their misrepresentations? No, they’ve got a product, a lifestyle, to sell. And they sell that fantasy extremely well.

Putting obvious funding questions aside, where are the Super Bowl-esque ads about public transportation? Where are all the transit ads representing freedom to explore and observe, safety, good health, cost savings, sustainability, community, patriotism, and happiness? Transit communications needs to catch up if transit and alternate modes ever hope to catch on.

To get people to ride transit, the bus, rail, biking, walking, teleworking, and ride-hailing communities must catch up with the auto industry on communications and marketing. There needs to be simple, powerful, consistent, and, most importantly, positive messages about the experience.

We know transit can be productive, better for your health, and cleaner for the environment. We don’t seem to care about the endless benefits of active transportation because we don’t know about them. The messages that might get us to even contemplate these options aren’t being communicated widely enough, and they’re certainly not being repeatedly pounded into our heads like the entertaining and endless mental queues from car commercials.

We still think of trains and buses as dirty, disgusting, and communal in all the wrong ways. Bicycling and walking “aren’t for us” and often bring preconceived notions that there must be something wrong with people who do those weird, not-normal types of activities. While there are certainly problems with all these forms of travel, more needs to be done to accentuate the many positives.

I hate a message like this, probably the most well-known transit ad in existence: the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s “If You See Something, Say Something.”

Its take-home message for people is disproportionate to the rational facts, laid out in one study by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute:

  •     Commuter rail is about 20 times safer than driving
  •     Metro or light rail is about 30 times safer
  •     The bus is about 60 times safer, and
  •     About 360 times more people are killed in auto collisions than in incidents of terrorism.

These points should be messaging gold for future non-car advertising. And when agencies and others must go down the safety road (which is, of course, important), they could follow the example of the Denver Regional Transportation District’s co-opting of the wildly popular Australian “Dumb Ways to Die” campaign:

This is another example of a transit ad, from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, that does better at potentially generating curiosity about trying transit.

L.A. Metro
L.A. Metro
I thought the Washington, D.C., Metro’s commercial showing a good-time party breaking out on the newly opened Silver Line was exactly the kind of thing that could inspire ridership (see below).

I have no doubt that journalistic storytelling and content marketing will be a long-term path to the better overall health of the non-auto transportation industry. Not only does the industry need to sell its services, but it must do something new: become hyper-focused on selling the lifestyle.

Organizations like the American Public Transportation Association, Amtrak, the Association for Commuter Transportation, the League of American Bicyclists, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the Eno Center for Transportation, and Mobility Lab, to name a few, need to form a messaging and communications coalition with the goal of changing public opinion.

All kinds of tactics could be used. For example, FamiliesUSA built a story bank, where people can share their personal stories that relate to bigger societal issues sweeping the mainstream news. The organization then very successfully feeds those personal stories to the media, which is actually one of the reasons we see so many personal anecdotes within our national news stories.

Communicating outside of just the transportation arena is also crucial, and transit conversations need to somehow overlap into the tech, health, environment, business, city planning, and pop-culture worlds. It’s important to get others, not just the transportation experts, to spread the message about why support is needed for transportation options.

Industries, sectors, and businesses that get this storytelling strategy are winning. My favorite example is Red Bull, the energy drink company, which publishes the Red Bulletin Magazine. It has about the same amount of subscribers as Sports Illustrated.

Red Bulletin tells stories about the adventurous lifestyle. Maybe back at the very end, it might have a Red Bull energy drink ad. But the magazine is about telling the story of the lifestyle. The company knows that if you buy into that lifestyle, there’s a chance you’ll drink its product. It’s brilliant.

The list is quickly getting long of the industries that are doing content marketing and storytelling right, and their creativity is reflected in their profits and popularity: AirBnB has Pineapple, Uber has Momentum, Intel has IQ, Coca-Cola has Journey, American Express has Open Forum. You get the idea. Most of these organizations are pumping out more (and not just more, but also great) content than Time Magazine did in its heyday.

Because if you want someone to buy your product or buy into your lifestyle, you don’t immediately start screaming at them to buy, buy, buy the moment they approach you. You try to nurture them and build a long-lasting relationship. You do that by telling them great stories and then telling them more great stories.

Finally, here is my advice for agencies, organizations, and even individuals, on how to tell better stories. This stuff won’t break the bank, and anyone involved in non-car transportation should find the money to incorporate most or all of these elements into your strategies.

  •   Build compelling websites that go beyond selling customer fares and sell a lifestyle.

  •   Pick your social networks and devote yourselves to them, and remember, they might not be around tomorrow or might change their rules, so have a backup plan.

  •   Engage with the public, there are free contributors who would love to get published or promoted through your channels.

  •   Hold hackathons or regular events, like Mobility Lab’s Transportation Techies, to turn your big data into stories or ideas that your public agency can consider.

  •   Engage thought leaders to trumpet your cause. Once they get it, others will start to.

  •   Leverage research from other places if you can’t do your own.

  •   Create messages and talking points that are relevant to your community.

           -  People in Alameda, Calif. are particularly interested in environmental and green causes, so the city created transportation messages that paved the way to policies that reduce carbon pollution.
          -  In my hometown of Edwardsville, Ill., there are amazing trails to every corner of town and beyond. But it seems to me very few people ever ride bikes or walk to get to work or to go out and socialize. The trails are often busy, but almost entirely with people seeking recreation. There is a huge opportunity to educate people and improve traffic, which can be pretty rough there even in a 30,000-person St. Louis suburb.

  •    It can be really difficult to find photos of people happy on transit. That’s the first problem to take care of in every city. Work diligently to find great photos of people using public transportation.

  •     Calls to action. People must be inspired to get involved.

  •     Hire a journalist or two, because their passion and perspective might actually be the brand journalism that puts your organization and the industry over the top.

This article is based off my presentation at TransportationCamp DC 2016 entitled, “May the Future Be With You: Communicating Transportation Options – A group discussion around two unreleased Mobility Lab short films.” You are welcome to use slides from the PowerPoint in your own presentations.

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