I was flipping through a recent issue of Newsweek when I saw a full-page black-and-white advertisement featuring a young boy holding a melting ice cream cone in one hand and grasping the hand of his father with the other. Cute photo, I thought, probably a pitch for an insurance company.
As I looked closer, I realized that it was an ad for public transportation, part of the (PT)2 (Public Transportation Partnership for Tomorrow) campaign orchestrated by our friends at the American Public Transportation Association.
My first reaction was that the ad was too subtle. Not a bus or train in sight. The headline at the top of page simply reads “Jensen Street Station/ to state fair/ to brain freeze.” Below the photo, at the bottom of the page, is a paragraph that brings the imagery into focus: “Chocolate or vanilla. It’s not an easy choice. But for millions of people, choosing public transportation is a no-brainer. . . . “ Nice, but still not exactly rousing.
As I continued to study the ad, it dawned on me that public transportation, though playing an essential role in cities across the country, is a supporting player rather than the star. What we’re really about is people and communities. All of the rest of what we do is a means to that end — helping communities thrive by providing people with freedom and opportunity.
The longer I looked at the ad, the more I liked it. Simple and clean. Subtle not splashy. A clear focus on emotional value. Not everyone will agree, but I think the message is well communicated.
Off to a promising start
All in all, it’s a good start to what’s going to be a long campaign to improve the image of public transportation and lay the groundwork for increased federal funding, an especially critical mission given that the reauthorization of TEA 21 is right around the corner.
The full-page print ads (there are five differ-ent ads) are complemented by a 30-second TV spot that’s been aired on CNN, CNBC and MSNBC. Unlike its print counterpart, the commercial is lively, fast-paced and energetic and shows people actually riding buses and rail. It’s as effective as the print advertising, but with a completely different style. (All of the print and broadcast ads can be down-loaded at the (PT)2 Website at www.publictransportation.org.)
Designed for modification
Mary Trupo, director of the (PT)2 initiative, says the national print ads were designed to be easily modified for use by transit agencies, which can simply substitute real street names and locales for, say, Jensen Street Station and state fair, as I described earlier. Once personalized, these ads can be placed in local newspapers and magazines as well as on the sides of buses and at bus shelters, she adds.
After the initial three-month advertising salvo, which started in late January, the PT2 folks will evaluate the public response and reload for another effort, probably starting in the fall. Trupo says the campaign is set for the long haul, at least five years, and possibly more.
As publisher of METRO for more than a decade, I’m obviously a great believer in ad-vertising. There’s no better way to influence perception and build image. But the key to a great advertising campaign is a great product. Quality advertising does nothing to improve the quality of the product or service. We need to make sure that the transit community’s services can live up to the pleasing imagery of the advertising campaign and its tagline, “Public Transportation: Wherever Life Takes You.”