Transit Advertising and Transit Self-Esteem




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?

UPDATE:  Todd Edelman has a Flickr page devoted to similar “self-harming” transit advertisements from around the world.

17 Responses to Transit Advertising and Transit Self-Esteem

  1. Jonathan February 5, 2010 at 5:47 am #

    So long as transit is subsidised or restricted by the state, it’s important that the advertising accepted be ‘blind’ to the issues it raises despite the weird corner-cases this can generate such as the one shown. One can imagine a case where a Labour controlled local council (I live in the UK, substitute Democrat in the US) hands out the most profitable bus routes to a bus company that will only accept Labour-leaning electioneering.
    Private coach companies, for example, are free and typically do only advertise their own or associated services – e.g. the Heathrow Express bus might advertise flights or holidays.
    More prosaically, some thirty or forty years ago, the quality of British Rail sandwiches on it’s trains were a frequently used comedy joke. The sandwiches got good and five years later the jokes were gone. Get the service right at the advertisers will stop poking fun: ‘Air New Zealand – as reliable as the next bus’.

  2. John February 5, 2010 at 10:07 am #

    Your point is well-taken, but I don’t think that ad is necessarily insulting to the transit agency. You implied that the ad is stating the viewer wins because the bus is late. I would say that you win regardless of what the bus does. Either the bus is on-time (win) or you get $100 off your round-trip flight to N-Zed (win).

  3. EngineerScotty February 5, 2010 at 10:30 am #

    Maybe Air New Zealand is referring to its aircraft as “busses”. 🙂

  4. Alon Levy February 5, 2010 at 2:30 pm #

    Actually, if the bet is even odds, you should bet that the bus will be on time. Buses frequently go off-schedule, but not more than 50% of the time. And if they were allowed the same leeway as planes are, their on-time percentage would be 100%.

  5. JP February 5, 2010 at 2:31 pm #

    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.
    And if you just want to get somewhere, the streetcar in mixed traffic is the worst of both worlds: neither grade separated, nor able to go around things.

  6. Aaron M. Renn February 5, 2010 at 4:07 pm #

    I don’t think it is unreasonable for transit operators to defend their brand. Advertising for airlines is fine, but running ads that mock the institution that is hosting said ads seems crazy.

  7. Todd Edelman February 5, 2010 at 6:45 pm #

    Hi all, would love it if you checked out a whole lot of similar examples I have photographed and gathered: “Public Transport: Self-Harming Adverts” at

  8. Jarrett at February 5, 2010 at 7:03 pm #

    Thanks, Todd!  Post updated.

  9. Pantheon February 5, 2010 at 7:24 pm #

    I don’t think this is about self-respect. Private businesses don’t allow this because they want to make as much money as possible, and advertising that demeans their product interferes with that. Transit agencies aren’t trying to make money, and they aren’t “profitable” anyway, so they don’t care. It has nothing to do with self-respect and everything to do with money.

  10. Pantheon February 5, 2010 at 7:27 pm #

    Also, the reason transit advertising tends to refer to transit is that it is the one thing every viewer of that ad has in common. If I were putting up ads in a strip club I would make the ads refer to naked women.

  11. Jarrett at February 5, 2010 at 7:47 pm #

    @Pantheon.  I don't follow that.  Transit agencies do care about ridership, and those of us who want sustainability outcomes via public transit should care about that too.  A message that discourages ridership — or that signals to all customers that people waiting for the bus must be people who can't afford cars — is contrary to that goal, no?

  12. Pantheon February 5, 2010 at 9:59 pm #

    Jarrett, I wasn’t really expressing support or opposition to allowing these ads, just explaining why corporations would act differently than the public sector. If you really want me to take a stand though, I would say I agree with Jonathan above. As passionately as I might believe in a cause, I don’t believe in censoring the opposition. Giving a government agency a lever to censor ads for content is likely to be abused. The problem is that “sustainability outcomes” as you put it is an ideological goal. Imagine if a conservative party ran on a platform of cutting government spending, including transit. What if they wanted to put up ads saying that money spent on transit is a waste? What if they wanted to justify that claim by pointing to transit’s failures? We are getting more into political philosophy here, but suffice it to say that I am not comfortable giving some government bureaucrat the power to censor ads.

  13. numbat February 5, 2010 at 10:09 pm #

    the transit agency in Sydney probably has nothing to do with the shelters and ads. here in Perth, the shelters are built by the advertising agency (for free) with permission, planning and choice of shelter design made by the local council.

  14. Lauri Kangas February 6, 2010 at 2:02 pm #

    At least Helsinki and Tampere forbid (or reserve the right to not accept) advertisements deemed negative towards public transport. I’m pretty sure other the other larger Finnish cities do this as well. The advertisements and shelters are managed by companies like JCDecaux or Clearchannel, but the contracts with these companies simply contain these provisions.
    Public transport agencies over here are just extensions of local government, not separate. They have boards based on the local city council or councils to provide political oversight. These boards could be used to settle any disputes.

  15. Todd Edelman February 11, 2010 at 9:37 am #

    @Pantheon: You make a good point, but I would suggest that public transport properties are only semi-public space (with closing hours, many restrictions, etc.) and therefore reasonable limit on adverts should be acceptable. In many cases the vehicles might be run by a tendered company, so I imagine they could choose their own rules (I gotta look back at my Flickr examples and see if these kind of ads appear on privatised services…

  16. Daniel Sparing July 15, 2010 at 7:36 am #

    There are of course advantages and disadvantages to privatizing operators — an advantage should be sensible business thinking which would not allow this. It should be.
    An interesting, borderline case was a self-advertising sign on a Göteborg tram: “would you like a guaranteed seat? Apply to be a tram driver!”

  17. EngineerScotty March 17, 2011 at 3:53 pm #

    While the case doesn’t involve transit-hostile advertising, TriMet in Portland, OR is defending itself in a lawsuit over what ads it must permit on TriMet transit vehicles with plaintiffs alleging that as TriMet is a government agency, it is not permitted to censor advertisements on busses and trains. An appeals court in Oregon ruled against the agency; TriMet is appealing to the state Supreme Court, but is expected to lose.
    The ads in question were political in nature; TriMet had a policy refusing all political ads (as well as ads for liquor and tobacco). But were the appeals court ruling upheld, TriMet (and other transit agencies) could conceivably be forced to permit “hostile” ads; such as anti-transit ads or ads from the local transit union criticizing management–as well as garden-variety commercial ads demeaning the service or its users.