Where are the Super Bowl-esque ads about public transportation?

[quote_right][feature_box title=”TRANSPO TAKEAWAY” title_color=”fff” header_color=”369″]Transit communications needs to catch up if transit ever hopes to catch on.[/feature_box][/quote_right]

TransportationCampLargerResizedWhen it comes to communicating that people have transportation options besides their own drive-alone cars, the transit industry is getting its lunch handed to it, and has been for decades.

It must face that it’s a fringe player that wants to become mainstream. And it’s not getting any easier. While we hear so many great stories about options presented by bikeshare systems and technology and Uber, the fact remains that people are buying cars more than ever.

Take the people who attend TransportationCamps, for instance. They are clearly transportation experts, but then again, just about every single American is a transportation enthusiast by way of traveling every day. And 95 percent of U.S. households have cars. Most of us love our cars, or at least have been seriously duped into thinking we love our cars.

So communicating to people that we don’t truly love our cars is a tough path to take for transportation advocates. Where an opening may be is that so many people hate driving, especially for the purpose of commuting.

The fact that we’re a car country is stating the obvious. Fifty-three percent of Americans want more spending on roads and 40 percent want more spending on transit. That stat actually seems pretty generous to transit.

But I don’t think advocates should make this a road versus transit thing. It’s best to learn from cars and from the auto industry. The Super Bowl, for example, is filled with car ads (there were at least 14 during this month’s Super Bowl 50), but driving is rarely like the ways the auto industry represents it in the ads.


A still from a recent Super Bowl car ad.

Do the car companies care about their misrepresentations? No, they’ve got a product, a lifestyle, to sell. And they sell that fantasy extremely well.

Putting obvious funding questions aside, where are the Super Bowl-esque ads about public transportation? Where are all the transit ads representing freedom to explore and observe, safety, good health, cost savings, sustainability, community, patriotism, and happiness? Transit communications needs to catch up if transit and alternate modes ever hope to catch on.

To get people to ride transit, the bus, rail, biking, walking, teleworking, and ride-hailing, communities must catch up with the auto industry on communications and marketing. There needs to be simple, powerful, consistent, and, most importantly, positive messages about the experience.

We know transit can be productive, better for your health, and cleaner for the environment. We don’t seem to care about the endless benefits of active transportation because we don’t know about them. The messages that might get us to even contemplate these options aren’t being communicated widely enough, and they’re certainly not being repeatedly pounded into our heads like the entertaining and endless mental queues from car commercials.

We still think of trains and buses as dirty, disgusting, and communal in all the wrong ways. Bicycling and walking “aren’t for us” and often bring preconceived notions that there must be something wrong with people who do those weird, not-normal types of activities. While there are certainly problems with all these forms of travel, more needs to be done to accentuate the many positives.

I hate a message like this, probably the most well-known transit ad in existence: the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s “If You See Something, Say Something.”


Its take-home message for people is disproportionate to the rational facts, laid out in one study by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute:

  • Commuter rail is about 20 times safer than driving
  • Metro or light rail is about 30 times safer
  • The bus is about 60 times safer, and
  • About 360 times more people are killed in auto collisions than in incidents of terrorism.

These points should be messaging gold for future non-car advertising. And when agencies and others must go down the safety road (which is, of course, important), they could follow the example of the Denver Regional Transportation District’s co-opting of the wildly popular Australian “Dumb Ways to Die” campaign:

This is another example of a transit ad, from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, that does better at potentially generating curiosity about trying transit.


I thought the Washington, D.C., Metro’s commercial showing a good-time party breaking out on the newly opened Silver Line was exactly the kind of thing that could inspire ridership.

I have no doubt that journalistic storytelling and content marketing will be a long-term path to the better overall health of the non-auto transportation industry. Not only does the industry need to sell its services, but it must do something new: become hyper-focused on selling the lifestyle.

Organizations like the American Public Transportation Association, Amtrak, the Association for Commuter Transportation, the League of American Bicyclists, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the Eno Center for Transportation, and Mobility Lab, to name a few, need to form a messaging and communications coalition with the goal of changing public opinion.

All kinds of tactics could be used. For example, FamiliesUSA built a story bank, where people can share their personal stories that relate to bigger societal issues sweeping the mainstream news. The organization then very successfully feeds those personal stories to the media, which is actually one of the reasons we see so many personal anecdotes within our national news stories.

Communicating outside of just the transportation arena is also crucial, and transit conversations need to somehow overlap into the tech, health, environment, business, city planning, and pop-culture worlds. It’s important to get others, not just the transportation experts, to spread the message about why support is needed for transportation options.

Industries, sectors, and businesses that get this storytelling strategy are winning. My favorite example is Red Bull, the energy drink company, which publishes the Red Bulletin Magazine. It has about the same amount of subscribers as Sports Illustrated.

Red Bulletin tells stories about the adventurous lifestyle. Maybe back at the very end, it might have a Red Bull energy drink ad. But the magazine is about telling the story of the lifestyle. The company knows that if you buy into that lifestyle, there’s a chance you’ll drink its product. It’s brilliant.


The list is quickly getting long of the industries that are doing content marketing and storytelling right, and their creativity is reflected in their profits and popularity: AirBnB has Pineapple, Uber has Momentum, Intel has IQ, Coca-Cola has Journey, American Express has Open Forum. You get the idea. Most of these organizations are pumping out more (and not just more, but also great) content than Time Magazine did in its heyday.

Because if you want someone to buy your product or buy into your lifestyle, you don’t immediately start screaming at them to buy, buy, buy the moment they approach you. You try to nurture them and build a long-lasting relationship. You do that by telling them great stories and then telling them more great stories.

Finally, here is my advice for agencies, organizations, and even individuals, on how to tell better stories. This stuff won’t break the bank, and anyone involved in non-car transportation should find the money to incorporate most or all of these elements into your strategies.

  • Build compelling websites that go beyond selling customer fares and sell a lifestyle.
  • Pick your social networks and devote yourselves to them, and remember, they might not be around tomorrow or might change their rules, so have a backup plan.
  • Engage with the public, there are free contributors who would love to get published or promoted through your channels.
  • Hold hackathons or regular events, like Mobility Lab’s Transportation Techies, to turn your big data into stories or ideas that your public agency can consider.
  • Engage thought leaders to trumpet your cause. Once they get it, others will start to.
  • Leverage research from other places if you can’t do your own.
  • Create messages and talking points that are relevant to your community.
    • People in Alameda, Calif. are particularly interested in environmental and green causes, so the city created transportation messages that paved the way to policies that reduce carbon pollution.
    • In my hometown of Edwardsville, Ill., there are amazing trails to every corner of town and beyond. But it seems to me very few people ever ride bikes or walk to get to work or to go out and socialize. The trails are often busy, but almost entirely with people seeking recreation. There is a huge opportunity to educate people and improve traffic, which can be pretty rough there even in a 30,000-person St. Louis suburb.
  • It can be really difficult to find photos of people happy on transit. That’s the first problem to take care of in every city. Work diligently to find great photos of people using public transportation.
  • Calls to action. People must be inspired to get involved.
  • Hire a journalist or two, because their passion and perspective might actually be the brand journalism that puts your organization and the industry over the top.

This article is based off my presentation at TransportationCamp DC 2016 entitled, “May the Future Be With You: Communicating Transportation Options – A group discussion around two unreleased Mobility Lab short films.” You are welcome to use slides from the PowerPoint in your own presentations.

See all the TransportationCamp DC 2016 session notes here.

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8 Comment(s)


I couldn’t agree more! It’s great having transit experts talk about transit on social media, but it tends to be the same circles repeating the same ideas to each other. We need to reach new ears!

I watch the Silver Line commercial at least once a month! That’s the way to do it!

Drew Snider

These are some great ideas — good to read as I start a new gig in communications with BC Transit. In Canada, there have been some very good creative campaigns for PT. Last year, BC Transit produced one showing a mountain biker busting down some trails to get to a bus stop and loading his bike onto the rack; and another with a high school band playing “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” on a bus while traveling to a Victoria Harbourcats game. In the 90s, there was a great jingle that went, “I got a limo that’s 40-feet long / I got a chauffeur who won’t steer me wrong” and the Canadian Urban Transit Association got great mileage with the Motown song, “It’s Your Thing (Do Whatcha Wanna Do)”. But I believe there’s a desire, which should be resisted, to be didactic and preachy in transit messaging — reduce congestion, cut back on your carbon footprint, etc. For the same reason people still smoke, over half a century after the Surgeon-General’s warnings started, “What You Should Do? doesn’t resonate with the public. Make it “what you want to do”, and you’ll get somewhere.

Richard Layman

Very nice piece, but I happen to think the WMATA commercials aren’t very good. Better than the “cheese stick” ad for the commuter rail in Orlando, but not much better.

Generally, transit agencies can’t afford to produce tv commercials, but some agencies do great or at least better print advertising. Metrolink in Southern California is one example. I talked to one of their creative agencies when I prepared a blog entry–oh it was for the bike car wraps. But separately that firm does great ads about “drunk driving” for agencies in their home state.

I came up with a concept for a great Metrorail ad in 1988, but they’d never do it. I came up with it after witnessing a car accident on Dupont Circle. I then imagined the drivers getting out of their car, starting to argue and it escalates, meanwhile the traffic is backing up. Hearing the angry voices getting louder and louder, the voice over would be “Take Metro. Beat the traffic. Before the traffic starts beating you.”

They’d never do it. Too controversial.

Rick L'Amie

Great article! As a former marketing VP for a large urban transit agency, I couldn’t agree more. What the transit industry needs is a breakout ridership (not advocacy) campaign similar to what the Milk and Cotton industries have done. You probably remember the “Cotton…. Cotton….” jingle, and the “Milk, it does a body good” campaign that featured celebrities. APTA, transit agencies and transit suppliers can easily pool resources and money. Let’s form a grass roots task force. Who’s in?

Sheryl Gross-Glaser

Paul, I am in complete agreement with you. On one point, I have to comment. You say it is difficult to find happy people sitting or standing on buses, subways, and commuter trains. So true. But you will find plenty of people sleeping, playing video games, listening to podcasts and music, or reading. None of these activities can be done while driving.

Paul Mackie

Yes Sheryl, I absolutely agree that you can find content and productive people on transit. I guess the point I was trying to make is that it’s much more difficult to find happy and zen people on transit. Car commercials usually show people extraordinarily happy people in and around their vehicles. Content and productive don’t make for as good a pitch, photo, video, or commercial as happy and zen do.



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