This Air New Zealand ad, on a bus shelter in Sydney, raises the issue of transit self-esteem. “$100 says the bus won’t be late,” it says, then, in much smaller print: “Looks like you win.”
Should transit agencies accept advertising that demeans their service?
Advertisers are often tempted to do exactly that, especially when selling vacations or other forms of escape from the everyday. The bus is both a profitable site of advertising and an irresistible metaphor for the tedious life. If you imagine your transport mode as a romantic partner, the bus in mixed traffic is the worst of both worlds: neither sexy nor capable of commitment. When advertising on a bus, it’s not surprising that advertisers find ways to play on that.
But why should a transit agency conspire in putting out this message? When was the last time you opened an airline magazine and saw an advertisement referring to hijackings or plane crashes, or even to chronic delays? It doesn’t happen. Private companies who advertise other companies don’t accept advertising that’s demeaning to themselves, or that counters their own marketing message. Why should transit agencies do it?
There are of course many legal and procedural reasons why these ads exist. Often, the decisions about what ads to accept are outsourced. In the case of shelters, the transit agency may not control the advertising contract. And there are often laws about discrimination in accepting advertising that make it hard to make these calls. Yet these can certainly look like an expression of low self-esteem on the part of the transit system. What would it really cost, in advertising revenue, for transit systems to show the same self-respect that airlines do?