Yet Another Reason to Hire Literature Students

What do corporate sponsorship of station names and advertising wraps on buses and trams have in common?

A literature student will know the answer:  For a transit agency, they are both Faustian bargains.

472px-Rembrandt,_Faust The Faust legend — manifested in famous works by Goethe and Marlowe — is the story of a man who sold his soul to the Devil.  Faust agrees to be condemned to hell at a fixed date in the future.  In return, the Devil arranges for him to enjoy a range of intense earthly pleasures between now and then.

I am not saying that corporations are the Devil.  Nor am I saying that trying to stave off service cuts by seeking new revenue is the moral equivalent of wanting a night in bed with Helen of Troy (one of Faust’s short-term pleasures).

The literature student will have to explain that this is an analogy, and analogies don’t imply that the situations correspond in every particular.  Rather, analogies serve to throw light on a hidden dimension of an issue, by describing the same dimension in a different context.  Stories from myth, legend, and religious scripture survive precisely because of their utility as analogies.

The core of the Faust legend is really this:  A person sacrifices what really matters in order to meet some vivid short-term needs.  In this transit example, the short-term need is revenue, while the “what really matters” is the public perception of the transit system and the ease and spontaneity with which people can use that system to move around in their city.  Naming stations after corporations gets in the way of the essential role of station names in telling people where they are.  Advertising wraps imply that the transit customer’s experience of her environment — including, again, her ability to know where she is, by looking out the window — is simply less important than the utility of the window as an advertising surface.

Notice, though, that the short-term benefit is very specific and tangible, while the long-term sacrifice sounds vague and aesthetic and impossible to quantify.

The analytic types at the table will say exactly that to justify proceeding with the sacrifice.  But the literature student will say:  Wait, that’s exactly the point!  Faustian bargains are always like that!  The short-term is always more vivid and quantifiable than the long term, so of course the short-term benefit always looks clearer and more certain than the long-term sacrifice.  That’s exactly why we have the Faust legend!  The legend survives, in the term “Faustian bargain,” precisely to remind us that sacrificing the long-term for the sake of the (much more vivid) short-term is not always a good move.

And one more thing:  A key background fact in the legend is that Faust is a great and influential scholar.  In other words:  Even really smart people make Faustian bargains.  In fact, a high level of confidence in your own mental powers seems to increase the risk.

Image:  Rembrandt’s etching Faust, from Wikipedia.

15 Responses to Yet Another Reason to Hire Literature Students

  1. jfruh June 22, 2010 at 7:22 pm #

    There’s a huge difference between a station wrap and the selling of naming rights. Station wraps are intrusive, sure, but they’re temporary and they don’t alter the fundamental identity of the station or hinder wayfinding.

  2. Jarrett at June 22, 2010 at 8:09 pm #

    Jfruh.  I'm talking about the effect of wraps and corporate station names on the transit experience, generally, not just the station.   Wraps, like corporate station names, can impede your ability, as a passenger, to know where you are.  Wraps make it hard to see the environment around you, especially at night, and can therefore be disorienting in exactly the way "Citibank station" would be.   Knowing where you are, whenever you need to kno that, is a crucial feature of a good transit experience.  So I contend it's a crucial element of "what really matters" in the Faust legend's terms.

  3. EngineerScotty June 22, 2010 at 8:37 pm #

    One difference between Faust and your typical cash-strapped transit agency, is that Faust was seeking the upper levels of Maslow’s pyramid. Enlightenment. Pleasures of the flesh, such as the aforementioned evening with the “face who launched a thousand ships”. (As an aside, I remember an English prof nearly having an orgasm in class over that particular line of iambic pentameter, and as a jaded engineering student, rolling my eyes, doubtless in an effort to keep them open).
    Your typical transit agency who permits its property to be turned into billboards, OTOH, is often more like a guy selling his soul to Old Scratch in order to put food on the table. Short-sightedness, or more accurately, the option to take the long view, is a luxury, after all.
    The tragedy of Faust, and the reason that he was a prize to Satan, was precisely because he was the creme of society. Billions of people around the world are probably desperate enough to sell themselves to the devil any day of the week–only in most cases, the devil ain’t interested.
    At any rate–continuing the Faustian analogy, its worthwhile to consider a well-known modern retelling featuring George Burns as the devil (and as his opposite number as well). Many people who make deals with whatever devil is handy expect that, like Ted Wass’s struggling musician, God (or perhaps the national government, with pockets stuffed with cash) will come and bail them out of their unwise choices.

  4. Ted King June 23, 2010 at 2:59 am #

    I think Jarrett’s point is that the wrap ads go too far. They hide the livery of the transit service and make it harder for the riders to stay oriented.
    I was living in San Francisco when SFMuni went from their Green+Cream livery to the White+Orange one. Talk about a collective heart attack. There’s something similar going in San Mateo County with the Samtrans system (started 2008 ? 2009 ?) as they phase in new buses.
    The thing is that an easily recognized livery is a major asset to a transit system. It’s a titanic form of heraldry. A wrapped bus is like an uprooted tree or a blank shield in a mob of rampant lions. It could be called a “ruse de commerce” due it being a sort of false colors.
    P.S. It’s a pity that the Faust legend is so old. Had it gotten started AFTER Cole Porter, the natural come back would be “It’s too darn hot …”.

  5. Mike H June 23, 2010 at 5:04 am #

    This is off-topic, sorry.
    A new light rail line opened yesterday in Norway’s second-largest city Bergen (pop. 259 000).
    The Norwegian broadcaster NRK has produced a video of a test run showing the new line end-to-end. Film of the old trams and other material is intercut with the footage. See
    Bergen is the first Nordic city to rebuild tram/light rail lines after dismantling them completely. The last tram service on the old lines in Bergen ran in 1965. The initial line is 9,6 km long and has 15 stops. The construction of a extension is to begin immediately after the opening. The current line runs for the most part on dedicated right of way.
    The rolling stock consists of 32 m long Stadler Variobahn vehicles. Bergen had its first accident in the new system already before the opening during a test run, when one tram derailed and crashed into another. No-one was hurt but the trams were damaged. The opening was not delayed because of the accident.

  6. Jennifer June 23, 2010 at 5:13 am #

    I guess I’m willing to weigh the ill effects against the positive effects. If the revenue stream from wrapping buses allows an agency to keep routes on the road where they otherwise wouldn’t be – and in many cash-strapped agencies, that may be the case – then the wrapped bus is better than none. Also, some customers like them because they look nicer than the “typical” bus that may not have positive associations.
    As far as the naming rights go, I agree that the station name should be decided based on a customer approach rather than a cost approach. But naming after corporations isn’t always an ill. I think in some cases naming a station or transfer center after a/the prominent business at that location actually helps. In our system in St. Louis, I can think of one station in particular that is named after the municipality where it resides, but where everyone – including people in the transit agency – refers to it as “[Business name] station” instead. In a city with 50+ municipalities, a lot of people don’t know where this or that little burg is; but everyone knows the big business players.
    So I guess it just depends.

  7. david vartanoff June 23, 2010 at 1:13 pm #

    To me the wraps are ugly corporate graffiti. As to “corporate whore” station/ballpark, sometimes the company goes belly up before the “rights” expire–yippee!

  8. Ian Fisher June 23, 2010 at 2:44 pm #

    Great post and I agree with the viewpoint 100%. Ad wraps can be tolerable if there’s good design control of them (e.g. keep them simple and limit the number of colours) but it’s pretty hard to legislate taste with the result that the hideous ones can’t be stopped. Obstructed windows are always a negative.
    On the other hand, I have seen some “station domination” campaigns that were great. One by a new Canadian cellular carrier (Koodo) wrapped the columns and faregates of Montreal’s McGill metro station with the simple bright colours of their brand. It looked smart, brought some life to the station and worked well as advertising.

  9. Darrin Nordahl June 23, 2010 at 8:28 pm #

    Sponsorship of transit stations and rolling stock,usually through eye-catching wraps, really comes down to the quality of design. Well placed graphics with proper hues, such as in transit stations of SF, HK, or Montreal (as Ian says) can really add relief and a sense of vitality. But there is also bad graphic design as well. Advertising on cable cars in SF is charged at a premium, but the adds are quite diminutive. In Hong Kong, the colorful wraps on the double-decker trams give this transport system undeniable flair…though that matches well with an urban design aesthetic predicated on information overload. But to note, the wraps do not cover the windows, and that is a huge difference. (see example here:
    Wraps on rolling stock not only reduce visual acuity for the passenger, they reduce transparency overall, meaning visibility into a cabin is also restricted (more so). People want and need transparency. They want to be able to see into a space as well as out. Nobody likes entering a space without any clue what is happening inside. This can lead to feelings of anxiety, especially among females and elders.
    The absolute worst Faustian faux-pas of a transit agency is to agree to wrap their buses with auto dealership advertisements. This is especially common in the States. For a quick revenue boost, the bus serves as a rolling advocate for the private automobile. Nothing could be a more dubious long-term revenue strategy for a public transit agency than that.
    See this egregious example here in my town of Davenport, Iowa:

  10. EngineerScotty June 23, 2010 at 9:34 pm #

    Earlier this year, Jarrett blogged about that very subject.

  11. Wad June 23, 2010 at 11:49 pm #

    Darrin, keep in mind the roles of outside bus advertising. It’s a rolling billboard for people seeing the buses on the street, a broader class than the riders themselves.
    The car dealers are paying for the exposure, not to poach a limited ridership base.
    However, if you want an example of an egregious example of a transit agency supplicating to cars, the Rhode Island Public Transit Agency in 1997 or 1998 asked riders on its website to fill out a survey, and by doing so, they’d be entered in a sweepstakes for a car!

  12. Eric June 24, 2010 at 5:42 am #

    Every financial decision at some point is a negotiation between short-term and long-term benefit. The Faustian bargain to me is over the state of the soul. Giving up the soul leads to a poverty of ideas. Every time I visit a new greenfield subdivision I see a Faustian bargain, not financially or temporally, but soulfully. What gets me is the poverty of ideas about the pursuit of happiness.
    Hey, as a former student of philology, thanks Jarrett for creating a forum to discuss and argue the soul of transit. It is rewarding. Maybe in the Faustian sense? 🙂

  13. Jarrett at June 24, 2010 at 6:12 am #

    @ Eric
    When you experience a housing division as soulless, is it because it's generic?  Is it even because it could be anywhere, which is to say it doesn't care where it is?  Well, there are lots of equivalents in transit, including corporatising station names. 
    One thing I admire in Europe is that almost every bus stop has a name.  There are no generic shelters sitting by the road looking like they could be anywhere.  The shelters may look like others, but the name of the location, prominent on the shelter and signage says: 'This isn't just anywhere.  We, the transit agency, know where you are, and we want you and all our riders to know where they are too.

  14. Eric June 24, 2010 at 6:38 pm #

    @ Jarrett
    That generic stop (or burb)we should suspect has a lot of potential for identity, but it is often forced into one submissive script. I suppose that’s why businesses fell free to rush in. “Corporatising” things and places, even verbs, is how they measure market penetration.
    In transit facilities, you move folks, rather, so that they can reach the particular. How much more then our responsibility to highlight local and very particular identity where it exists. Ha, at least leave the patron thinking they are somewhere!

  15. Jeffrey Bridgman June 24, 2010 at 9:34 pm #

    Random side note…
    I really feel a bus rider shouldn’t have to look out the window to navigate. I was riding a bus at night in a neighborhood I’d never been in before. Nearly impossible to find the correct stop.
    I really wish we’d adopt the system Japan and Europe uses of having named stops further apart. This would of course need to be coupled with stop announcements. I know this is done for some major avenues in America, but it still doesn’t help me find 24 and 1/2 street.