Early yesterday, I saw an Uber ad which expressed the company’s intent to attract passengers from high-capacity public transit. The ad is below, and my post in response is here.
In my response I reminded readers of what it would mean to shift large numbers of people from big transit vehicles, like the subway pictured here, to individual Uber cars — in terms of outcomes for cities, society, and the environment.
Within hours I got a Twitter message from a senior person at Uber, asking where I’d seen the ad and then assuring me the ad had been removed. All good.
But readers wondered if I was over-reacting to a mere ad, or if I regretted my post now that the ad had been taken down. No, and here’s why.
Advertising, like political speech, has a long history that we can study and learn from. Precisely because it seems so fleeting and insubstantial, it disarms our skepticism, exploits our desire to be “in” or “cool,” and thus shapes attitudes that will define the world of the future.
This ad also had a context, as part of a torrent of messages — from many parts of the culture including the tech industry — that encourage contempt for public transit, or at least apathy about it, among the relatively fortunate. And when our transit systems are not what our cities need or deserve, that apathy is the main reason why. With that ad, Uber had identified itself as an advocate of that apathy.
The only way to disarm that ad was to take it seriously. Advertising always wants to engage us with a wink and a nod, so that we’ll forgive it for implying things that the company wouldn’t want to defend having said directly. So to confront it, you have to strip off that mask and make clear that you hear what the ad is saying, and what that implies.
It’s like what you have to do to stop any ongoing pattern of abuse. Sooner or later, you have to speak up about something that seems minor in isolation. You have to say: “I know you think this is isn’t a big deal, but in the context of 100 similar things that are being said, it’s doing harm.” You’ll sound like a killjoy, but you’ll sleep better knowing you did what you could.
It worked. Somebody at Uber read my post, saw the problem and fixed it as a matter of urgency. Clearly there are people inside of Uber who want the company to be a more responsible player in urban issues. I look forward to meeting more of these people, and I hope they prevail in defining Uber’s future.
This is the stance that I encourage transit agencies to take toward Uber, Lyft, and similar companies. Negotiate from a position of confidence that demands respect for the things that only high-ridership transit can do. The companies worth working with are those that will be happy to meet you in that space, ready to collaborate to build better, more liberated cities.