The transit industry can learn a lot from the Super Bowl – not the players, but the commercials.
As the big game draws near once again, car companies prepare to debut their finest TV ads in the most expensive commercial slots of the year.
Their massive investments pay off, too. Well-crafted ads generate significant returns on investment – even for well-known brands like Coke and Pepsi – because they create positive associations with their products.
But what about transit agencies? Considering the discourse outside of transportation-advocacy bubbles is largely dominated by the opinions of people who don’t even use transit, commercials are a vital tool in creating more equitable mobility across the country.
Taking notes from a session at the recent TransportationCamp DC 2018 unconference that had a little fun rating the quality of seven transit advertisements, here’s my comparison of some of these ads with car commercials from last year’s Super Bowl to see what transit can learn from the pros.
Of course, public agencies will likely never have the budget to place a Super Bowl ad, but they can learn from the most competitive ad space of the year and begin building a positive narrative around transit.
Focus on the positive
Progress and independence is a major theme in many car commercials. They portray personal vehicles as the key to achieving what you want, and the companies as driving society toward a better future.
Ford’s Go Further (in the photo above and the video below) did a great job of this, with comedic vignettes of characters overcoming various mobility-related frustrations. They then pair shots of overcoming these obstacles with the growing variety of Ford’s new services and technology – bikeshare, microtransit, and electric vehicles, to name a few. It’s worth noting that – as usual – they didn’t venture to address the negative crush of massive traffic jams.
Especially with the theoretical self-driving car at the end, Ford makes it seem like if you buy into their company, you buy into the future. That’s a pretty good proposition.
In the same vein, the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority’s promo for the Silver Line’s opening (below) is a great example of a positive transit message, which stands out in contrast to the “see something, say something” campaign that most agencies hammer into the minds of passengers.
Instead, people are simply excited to ride the train. The dancing and music create a pervasive – if cheesy – feel-good vibe that implies that a new transit connection is indeed a cause for celebration. Without being heavy-handed, the ad suggests that of course folks will take the train now that they have it, and even toss their car keys for the better option.
Tell a story
Every successful commercial needs a storyline. Because commercials are so short, people won’t catch your message if they don’t have a thread to follow.
In most car commercials, cars themselves are hardly the focus of the story, like in Mercedes-Benz’s 2017 commercial (below), in which a man driving a convertible inadvertently blocks in a motorcycle gang hanging out at the local bar. This ad is about the life that happens to be centered around the vehicle. Transit has plenty of material to work with there, too.
The Toronto Transit Commission, using “high-brow” culture in partnership with Canada’s National Ballet, built a great set of scenes that felt like hooks for a larger story for viewers to follow. TTC filmed with the ballet’s dancers on platforms, trains, and streetcars, elevating transit to art itself, as well as the means to get to art.
As the one above and the others in the series show, there’s no need to shout TRANSIT at viewers. But transit blends so seamlessly into the storyline that it feels natural for dancers to bust out some moves on train platforms.
Tug those heartstrings
Hyundai (below) tapped the ever-reliable sense of patriotism by connecting three soldiers with their families at the game, allowing them to watch it together virtually. Audi (also below), aware of the turbulent cultural climate, asserted a commitment to equal pay between men and women by reflecting on the future of the narrator’s daughter as she wins a soap-box derby.
Again, these commercials didn’t involve adults driving in real-life situations at all. Instead, they suggest that supporting those companies by buying their products supports these values you care about. If something like this strikes the right tone, transit agencies have the stories to really show their value here.
Relationships – familial, platonic, or romantic – are reliable tropes, and they are abundant in the transit world. Considering real couples actually get married on the buses where they meet, transit agencies have an emotional side that they can and should show to build their audience.
The Orange County Transportation Authority made riding the bus a family-bonding experience in a short video (below) where a little girl plans a day out for her skeptical parents. This commercial not only showcased how many attractions in Orange County are accessible by bus, but that riding the bus – and avoiding driving and parking headaches – makes spending time with family even better.
Find your voice
Car companies have mastered brand-building, and that’s on wide display during the Super Bowl. Transit agencies have begun to figure out their own messaging, but have a long way to go to have the same voice and influence as automakers in public discourse.
Public discourse influences multiple layers of decision-making, from choosing a bus ride over driving to electing officials who will focus on equity in mobility rather than promoting the use of single-occupancy vehicles. Establishing a positive narrative around transit is key to increasing support for equitable mobility.
If mass transit can find its voice in the transportation narrative, it will go a long way in giving people better options to get around.
- Where are all the Super Bowl-esque ads about public transportation?
- Transit should be uncluttered onboard and in its advertising
Photo by Ford.