National advertising effort needed by local transit agencies

Transit in this country faces an advertising challenge.

With limited budgets, transit agencies are competing with a plethora of ads—and free, earned media attention—from more prestigious and hipper corporations such as Mercedes Benz, Tesla, Uber, and Lyft.

I wonder if it would be possible for transit agencies to combine efforts – and budgets – in a national effort. This could create spots that “do it all,” using the best contemporary messaging techniques to highlight the benefits of transit. Branding for a specific transit system could then easily be inserted into the ads by local agencies that identify with the messaging. Such ads would help overcome resistance to change, emphasizing the personal, social, and environmental benefits of transit while appealing to everyone from millennials to seniors.

Currently, transit agencies use their small budgets locally to encourage travel modes that are unquestionably a social good, but may be perceived as less prestigious or convenient than a personal automobile. Buses face a particular stigma.

It is also true that, once an individual has invested in a car, getting more use out of that car often makes the most sense both financially and in ease of use. Yet transit removes congestion from our roads and lessens local pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions. And transit riders don’t need to give the road their constant attention.

The ideal – perhaps impossible – ad would tout the personal and societal benefits of transit in a snappy, engaging three-minute (or less) format that competes with the glut of entertainment bombarding our short-attention-span society.

While some transit videos have all the pitfalls of a bureaucratic production, with a bland voice and visually unimaginative presentation spewing out facts, many strive to surmount this trap and, at least partially, succeed.

One of my favorite ads for busses – the most spurned of transportation modes, yet also an invaluable social good – comes from Washington state’s Community Transit in Everett, Wash.

This snazzy video, called “Nobody Moves Like Transit,” uses the hokey irony of transit workers and folks from all walks of life harmonizing, grooving, and dancing to music (satirizing the Maroon 5 hit “Moves Like Jagger”). It combines quick cuts in a music video format, stretching the most production value out of what appears to be a small budget. The video does suffer from a limited musical track – in an ideal world, something like the boisterous Dap Kings, Amy Winehouse’s backing band, would add aural fireworks. Overall, despite its limitations, the video is comparable to the cleverest big-name advertising campaigns.

Even still, I would have liked to see a more complete message of the benefits of transit snuck into this video. It does go beyond the basic “nobody moves like transit” by stressing the difficulties of driving, being “caught in traffic, stuck in a car.” However, numerous other transit benefits could be touted: not having to pay for gas and repairs, not needing one car per family member, and being able to read or play games on your commute. It may be unrealistic to ask for a short ad to also tout the environmental benefits of transit, but other videos stressing this could be part of a series.

In contrast to the Community Transit video, here’s a 2012 example from the Ithaca, N.Y., Tompkins Consolidated Area (TCAT) system that exemplifies how not to make an advertisement.

It is hokey and bureaucratic, with flat voiceover. Many viewers will not watch beyond the first 20 seconds. While the video does include some useful information, such as the idea of enjoying conversation and relaxing, some of the information included is too obvious to need a video. Other useful information would be best conveyed on another platform. Videos should, I think, include links to information on, for instance, how to buy and use transit cards, what routes go where, and what transit apps work best. However, this information should not clutter up the video itself.

Fortunately, TCAT seems to have realized the error of its ways and, in 2014, released a far more effective video:

This is just the sort of information transit agencies should be emphasizing, and the production is often engaging. The graphics are snazzy, employing quick-moving animation, with, for instance, a rapid pan away from Ithaca to a revolving planet, which then pulls back to become a spinning car wheel. The voiceover is still flat and the music uninspiring, however.

Whatever the limitations of the presentation, the information is spot on, contrasting the long-term trend toward more cars and driving with the trend toward transit. Since people are social animals, encouraging viewers to be part of something bigger, of a growing social movement, is a smart approach.

The video effectively touts “five fabulous ways” to be part of this movement: Go Smart, Go Together, Go Virtual, Go Transit, Go Active. Unfortunately, the tacky voiceover here undercuts the message. Ideally, the producers should come up with a trendier voiceover that appeals to both the hip-hop generation and to older people.

The message does successfully move from more efficient driving or carpooling to avoiding unnecessary trips to taking transit to walking and biking. I personally would have liked to see a stronger emphasis on transit, including how it can lower the need for multiple cars per family and how it allows teenagers (and even pre-teens) to be more independent at an earlier age.

The idea is to change perceptions of transportation. However, social change happens slowly, and the video producers are probably smart to work toward transit as one of many options. The video wisely includes a couple of reminders that the trend – both nationally and in the Ithaca region – is away from solo driving, reinforcing the message of joining a social movement.

In summary, many transit agencies are on the right track but have not found the ideal combination of a short, engaging presentation that conveys exactly the right message. Maybe it’s time to consider a nationwide partnership.

Photo of happy kid on the bus by Alfredo Mendez/Flickr.

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John Perry

You should check out the advertising that has been done by Metro in Los Angeles. Not only does Metro have a very savvy social media presence (their blog– http://thesource.metro.net/ –is perhaps the snazziest agency blog I’ve seen), their videos are short, very well-done, and make transit look exciting. The ads they did for the opening of the Expo Line to Santa Monica were practically excellent, not only for the choice of music and imagery, but also because they conveyed a sense of possibility, of something fun and exciting you could now do with transit, rather than it just being an alternative means of commuting to work (which we all hate). Many of Metro’s videos are good, but this is one is probably the best, and I think it ought to serve as a case study of what good transit advertising looks like: https://youtu.be/5sqNlaKyLX0

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