Archive for Subway Advertising
I’m a bit swamped this week as I’m heading out for vacation on Thursday afternoon. I’ll do my best to expand on some of these topics as the week goes on, but for now, I’d like to offer up a short post on a topic I’ve covered in the past: MTA advertising.
As part of a back and forth with Pamela Geller’s group, the MTA has struggled to craft a constitutionally-acceptable ad policy that doesn’t infringe on First Amendment protections. The agency tried to amend its policy in late 2012 but has been engaged in protracted legal wrangling over the revised versions. Recently, a federal judge found that the MTA had to run anti-Muslim ads under its policy, and in response, the MTA has barred all political advertising from appearing in ads. (Check out the revised policy in this pdf).
On its surface, this strikes me as an impermissible content-based restriction on free speech, but recent Sixth Circuit jurisprudence may say otherwise. A case out of Southern Michigan found that SMART could bar all political speech as it did not consider buses to be public forums. The Second Circuit hasn’t been as forgiving, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this matter head to the Supreme Court. (WNYC delves into the legal theorizing over the constitutionality of the MTA’s moves.)
Geller has already said she plans to sue the agency over its latest revisions, and so far, the MTA has yet to win a case against her group. As a lawyer, I’ve always been intrigued by this give-and-take, and I’ll keep an eye out on this story as it unfolds in the coming months.
It has been a banner week for the mundane in the subways. Mired in the morass of a slow April with the MTA’s ambitiously expensive capital plan on tap, the openings of the Fulton St. Transit Center in two months and the 7 line extension…eventually…, and still no idea how the Governor is going to pay for the new Tappan Zee Bridge, the stories of the week have focused around a rat and some cleavage. These are, apparently, the things that count.
The rat story is your garden variety “rat on subway car, passengers freak out” type. Like many New Yorkers, the rat was trying to get somewhere on Monday morning when it ended up on an A train at Fulton St. The doors closed, and the passengers freaked out at something approximately 1/100th their size. It’s an impressive display of New York cowardice as grown adults stood on subway seats, screamed and, if you listen to the audio track on the video above, sobbed for two minutes while this rat tried to run away from the nutty human giants surrounding it.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m glad I wasn’t on that subway car. And, yes, rats do carry rabies. But something about this reaction just strikes me as incredibly pathetic. It’s New York gone soft, and it’s generated, according to a Google News search, over 170 articles throughout the country. Who knew a rat on the subway was so newsworthy? In response, an MTA spokesman told Metro that the agency is continuing to fight rats as best they can.
While the rats scamper free, what of the breasts? That’s the other big story this week. In a classic “think of the children” moment, Pete Donohue of the Daily News turned a subway ad on breast augmentation into a giant controversy. In an piece filled with concerned parents, Donohue focused his column on the ad’s display. “Whoa! That’s too much exposure,” Connie Johnson said of the ads. “Her breast is out. It’s exposed. As a female, I don’t like it. I think it’s terrible. Kids can see that.” (Kids can also see the cover of the Daily News, but sex and hypocrisy sell newspapers.)
This brouhaha probably would have died down had Governor Cuomo not gotten involved, but seemingly having solved every other transit problem he pretends doesn’t exist, the Governor opted to take the MTA to task for their ad policy. The ad policy recently come under judicial scrutiny, and in order to comply with the pesky First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the agency had to re-write its policy to be more encompassing. Now, the Governor via a letter to the MTA has requested the agency review its ad policy.
Please, think of the children, he said. “Tens of thousands of children ride the transit system every day to go to school,” the letter, signed by Howard Glaser, reads. “The MTA is a public conveyance, subsidized by $190 million annually in the state budget, plus over $5 billion in dedicated taxes. The public has a right to expect that the MTA will strive for a family-friendly environment.”
Of course, because the MTA is a government agency, “family-friendly environment” can also be interpreted as a content-based restriction on free speech. Is there a compelling state interest to avoid ample, but still covered, cleavage on an ad in the subway? If the state hasn’t dubbed it obscene, one agency board member said, the MTA would lose the lawsuit if it rejected the ad.
So now, with real issues facing the region, the MTA will spend time on its ad policy to appease a governor that the cynic in me believes is trying to appeal to more conservative voters in order to ring up some crushing reelection poll numbers in November. This is transit policy in 2014. I think I’ll stick with the rats instead.
While heading from Manhattan to the Double Windsor to enjoy the New York City debut of Bell’s Brewery’s delicious beers, I hopped off the A at Jay St. to catch an arriving Coney Island-bound F train. Lo and behold, it was the rare Jaguar-branded F. I had heard much about this rare creature, and my transit-loving heart skipped a beat as this wrapped train arrived.
Upon alighting at 15th Street-Prospect Park, I snapped a few pictures of the train. It’s a silly bit of advertising, designed to make the MTA some money while appealing to our cultural prejudice against public transit. Even in New York City, the ads proclaim, the Jaguar F type is faster than the Transit Authority’s F train. It’s a silly conceit in New York City where congestion rules the day, and the F, generally, can get a straphanger to his or her destination just as fast as a car at peak hours.
Not everyone is enamored with this ad. When it hit the rails a few weeks ago, Streetsblog accused the MTA of undermining its mission with an ad that insults riders. “One costs around $2 per trip while the other starts at $69,000 — plus taxes, license fees, insurance, parking, gas, and maintenance,” Brad Aaron wrote, “Seriously, who sees this ad and thinks, ‘I believe I’ll trade my MetroCard for a $1,500 a month debt load’? The F train doesn’t have a top speed of whatever, but it can get from 14th Street to Prospect Park with just 12 stops in between. And there’s no battling the horn-honking morass at the toll-free East River bridges.”
I wouldn’t take it that far, and from the inside, I had no idea the train was wrapped in a Jaguar ad. Still, it was something new and different, and it generates some revenue from the cash-starved authority. It won’t cover the cost of providing toll relief across the Verrazano Bridge, and it may be too reminiscent of full-car graffiti bombings in the 1980s. But it’s just an ad. It is but a balm for hurt minds even as car culture and transit culture collide spectacularly.
How’s this for the perfect storm of annoying transit ideas? Imagine the incessant audio announcements we’re currently subjected to on subways and, to a lesser degree, buses. Now imagine if those were advertisements. Are you sobbing in the corner yet?
It’s not a particularly far-fetched idea. Already, everything transit covered in ads. Buses carry displays on the outside, stations come sported full buy-outs, the video screens in some of the newer subway cars were once designed to broadcast advertisements and even MetroCards can now be sponsored. And now, as Eric Jaffe detailed at The Atlantic Cities yesterday, audio ads for buses are on the way in some U.S. cities.
Audio ads in transit systems are part of a natural progression as transit agencies seek to squeeze every dollar out of every possible outlet. These ads too aren’t just stock spots. The company selling them has implemented a GPS-based technology that allows ads targeted to specific routes and destinations to play as buses near those locales. Currently, riders in 11 metro areas — but not, obviously, New York — are subject to these ads, but some transit agencies are hesitant to embrace them for fear of irking riders.
Jaffe summarizes the state of play:
On paper, the idea seems like a win for everyone. (Though, what doesn’t?) Advertisers can reach consumers at hand-picked times and places. Transit authorities bag some extra operational revenue without dipping into public pockets. Commuters avoid fare hikes and service cuts in exchange for just a tiny sliver of their soul. The payoff varies by city. While Commuter Advertising doesn’t release its revenue figures, Ryan Holeywell of Governing recently reported that Champaign, Illinois, has earned about $150,000 from its audio ad partnership since 2009. Not a boom, for sure, but not much of a risk, either, because the company offers its service zero-cost to transit providers and will even compensate them if expenses are incurred…
Commuter Advertising does its best not to overwhelm the airwaves. (The company was founded by two regular transit commuters, after all, during a serendipitous trip on the Chicago El.) The audio ads never last more than 15 seconds, and they only run at 8 to 20 percent of all transit stops, which means every fifth time the door opens at most…What transit commuters worry about is the slippery slope. Print ads are no problem until riders find themselves standing at a bus stop transformed into a Dunkin’ Donuts oven. Station names are fine to sell unless the system map becomes geographically meaningless. Tame audio ads are likewise acceptable — it’s the idea that one day platform loudspeakers will play them non-stop that frightens riders.
As things stand, though, audio bus ads seem to reside at the tolerable end of the transit marketing spectrum. Riders can always wear headphones, and audio campaigns might even prompt transit agencies to fix their habitually busted speaker systems. A little annoying? Sure. Demeaning or intolerable? Hardly. If the money is right, and the approach respectful, they might even be the responsible choice.
A win-win on paper, as Jaffe calls it, though depends on the revenue generated. Even for a relatively small system like that in Champaign, Illinois, the $150,000 is a ripple in the bucket. The CUMTD has annual expenses topping $42 million, and the money from audio ads won’t avert any sort of fare hike should one be necessary. Play enough audio message, though, and riders feel harassed by them as they do in the New York City subway.
Ultimately, this is a delicate area for any transit agency. Riders are a captive audience for advertiser eyeballs, but riders can grow irate in a split second especially when public perceptions surrounding mass transit aren’t particularly positive in the first place. More advertising in and on public transit may be inevitable as agencies look to recoup lost subsidies as best they can, but I’m not looking forward to the day we hear audio ads on buses.
As I’ve walked through the Times Square subway each morning this summer on my way to work, I’ve noticed that the full station ads have seemingly been dormant. Throughout June, the billboards promoted BBC America’s “Copper” show, but after that, the pipeline dried up. The 42nd St. Shuttle cars are decked out in soccer adverts, but it’s noticeable that the in-station ads are due for a refresh.
Twenty or even ten years ago, New Yorkers would have been shocked by the concept of station advertising. After the heydays of the 1950s, MTA advertising hit the skids. We had Julio and Marisol, Dr. Zizmor and a bunch of ESL classes. While some of those persist today, they’ve been joined by Madison Avenue’s bigger accounts. Anheuser-Busch and ABC now buy out full car spots while Sleepy’s now has banners on the outsides of some train cars. Even Metrocards now carrying advertising, and big names such as The Gap and Audible.com are forking over big bucks for the spots.
Recently, while researching another piece, I came across a great story from the early 1990s about the MTA’s advertising or lack thereof. Published by The Times in July of 1991, it explored why the subway ads were so bad. Here’s how Douglas Martin summarized the situation:
Reading the advertising cards posted over the fluorescent panels certainly adds to this perception, and must suggest to visitors that New York subway riders roam a daily hell far grimmer than even the worst graffiti of yesteryear. Those suffering from hemorrhoids or anal warts can find any number of laser-packing doctors with phone numbers like M-D-T-U-S-C-H. Those needing their torn ear lobes resewn, their roaches removed, their AIDS diagnosed, their doctors sued, find succor. “Who cares if you’ve been mugged?” asks a Victim Services Agency ad illustrated with a picture of a woebegone chap wearing smashed glasses…
While no one disputes the need many have for the products advertised, the dismal view of urban life that looms over every commuter is part of a long, slow transition from the 1950’s, when subways carried national and department store ads as a matter of course. It is not a phenomenon anybody relishes, including the people who run the subways. “Through the years, the advertising is less tasteful, if you will,” said Henry Rissmeyer, acting director of marketing and corporation communications for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. “Part of that is a perception of riders of the subway, one shared by advertisers.”
He thinks the reason is related to the fact that few Madison Avenue ad types — and he was one once — venture into the subway. “Most are reimbursed for cabs,” he said. Subway ads, he says, are “an afterthought.”
They might be missing a very big and very cheap opportunity. Each business day, some 3.5 million people ride the subways. Over a month, more than 5 million people can be reached. That, says the man in charge of selling advertising space, adds up to more New Yorkers than might be reached by running commercials on all three networks simultaneously. “It’s so inexpensive, people refuse to believe it,” said Rick Del Mastro, president of Gannett Transit, the subsidiary of the Gannett communications empire whose bid won it the right to manage subway advertising. “And guess what? The doors close and you’re locked in.”
The article from 22 years ago portends video ads — a technology ever coming soon. New clocks were to provide 10 full-color ads per minute and train traffic information with an eye toward bringing rotation ad screens to the interior of the city’s subway cars. These days, such video screens are slowly escaping the pilot program label while some of the new R160s have space for video ads but no commercials in rotation. Some things change over the decades; some do not.
Meanwhile, the MTA’s advertising program has been a recent success story. Ridership has exploded upward since that 1991 article, and Transit, with over 5 million captive riders a day, now brings in $120 million annually in advertising revenue. It’s been a long, slow climb with untapped potential sitting out there, but we’re no longer subjected to hemorrhoids or roaches. Rather, we have station names and Metrocard ads instead.
With Major League Baseball’s All Star Game returning to New York City this year, advertising focusing around it is starting to ramp up. This week, a fully-wrapped 7 train — the first of its kind on the IRT Flushing Line — made its debut. The current sponsor is Head & Shoulders, and the advertisements decorate both the inside and outside of the cars.
For many New Yorkers — those who haven’t seen the Shuttle become an advertising testing ground — the 7 train is a novelty. The MTA had secured a sponsor for a wrapped 6 train a few years ago, but this marks the first full-car opportunity for the 7. The MTA wouldn’t tell me how much money this car generates, but there will be another one sponsored by T-Mobile making an appearance beginning in July.
Over the years, the MTA has ramped up its advertising efforts, boosting revenues in excess of $120 million, but it still seems like an untapped market. Video boards have started showing ads above station entrances, but in-system advertising has remained static. The video screens on some of the new rolling stock are supposed to be able to show ads, but the only clips in rotation have been MTA PSAs. Metrocards now carry ads as well, but those rates are relatively modest.
After the jump, a look at the inside of Head & Shoulders’ MLB 7 train, and for more on Head & Shoulders’ ad strategy with regards to the subway wraps, check out this AdAge piece from March. Read More→
When the MTA lost its court ruling over Pamela Geller’s anti-Jihad advertising on First Amendment grounds, Judge Paul Engelmayer told the authority to amend its advertising policy or else. The MTA Board didn’t have a chance to address the issue until yesterday, a few days after the ads debuted and were defaced. With one person in jail over the ads, the MTA announced yesterday a revised advertising policy.
Faced with the need to eliminate the “no demeaning ads” standard due to its lack of constitutionality, the MTA has instead opted for a more inclusive policy, albeit on with a disclaimer. With board members speaking out against limiting both the revenue from advertising and the use of public space to express unpopular, but constitutionally protected, viewpoints, the MTA will allow viewpoint advertising. The agency will require a conspicuous disclaimer that says, “This is a paid advertisement sponsored by [Sponsor]. The display of this advertisement does not imply MTA’s endorsement of any views expressed.”
While the MTA could still appeal the district court’s ruling, it does not plan to do so. Such a case would likely not be a winning one, and litigation costs would be steep. The MTA further clarified its new position:
To be clear, the MTA does not believe the First Amendment compels the MTA to open up its ad spaces in this way to a wide range of expressive communications. MTA could, for example, adopt a narrower commercially oriented ad policy, one that limited the range of ads it will display to those selling a product or service, and by doing so, avoid having to run demeaning or divisive ads such as the AFDI ad that resulted in litigation. But the MTA for decades has permitted its ad spaces to serve a broader communicative function than mere commercial advertising, and the Board, today reaffirms that tradition of tolerating a wide spectrum of types of ads, including ads that express views on a wide range of public matters.
With that choice also come First Amendment limitations that constrain the MTA’s ability to disallow particular ads because their messages are uncivil or divisive. We had thought this did not mean having to run divisive ads that demeaned others, but the recent litigation tells us otherwise. A cost of opening our ad space to a variety of viewpoints on matters of public concern is that we cannot readily close that space to certain advertisements on account of their expression of divisive or even venomous messages.
We deplore such hate messages and remain hopeful that the vast majority of advertisers in our buses,subways, trains and stationswill remain responsible and respectful of their audiences. And when, as there inevitably will be, a very few sponsors of ads stray from civility, we have every confidence that our customers will understand that in our enlightened civil democracy, the answer to distasteful and uncivil speech is more, and more civilized, speech.
In response to the new policy — which still limits a wide array of false or misleading ads and offensive and mature content — the Straphangers Campaign sent out a list of questions: ” How will MTA determine if the ad contains “religious, religious, or moral” expression?, they asked. “What is the definition of a “conspicuous” legend? How much of the ad space would be devoted to the legend? What should be done in the case where there are many sponsors?” In 2000, the Straphangers were involved in another legal fight over MTA advertising when the authority refused to run an ad comparing subway crowding to cattle cars.
Gene Russianoff’s questions do seem reasonable, but so too does the MTA’s new policy. This should, for now, allow everyone to move forward with a policy that protects free speech, whether the reader agrees with it or not, and protects against future litigation as well.
After a year of legal wrangling over First Amendment concerns, Pamela Geller’s anti-Jihad ads went live yesterday. Transportation Nation tracked down enough people to draw out a mixed reaction to the ads which have popped up in ten stations throughout the city. “It’s hard for me to look at this poster and actually take it seriously,” one Muslim woman said.
True to New York spirit though, the ads lasted barely a day before someone took to editing them. As Mondoweiss reports in pictures, someone or someones have taken to placing stickers over the ads with their own message. So far, ads in at least seven stations — 57th Street and 5th Ave, 28th Street, 23rd Street, two on 42nd street, 34th street and Grand Central — have been defaced. Take that for what you will. In the meantime, the MTA has yet to announce a new policy for evaluating advertisements that better adhere to the spirit and letter of the Constitution as they cash Geller’s checks nonetheless.
Pamela Geller’s controversial anti-Islam ads will begin appearing in 10 subway stations throughout the city, the MTA announced yesterday. These ads have been the subject of much litigation over the past few years as Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative group successfully sued the MTA over its advertising practices. After Geller won her case on First Amendment grounds, the same judge chided the authority over its slow response to the ruling, and thus, in advance of next week’s board meeting, the authority’s hand has been forced.
As The Times reported yesterday, the MTA is essentially being forced by a judge’s order to accept and publish the ads. The MTA had asked for a stay pending the September 27 board meeting, but the judge told the MTA it had two weeks to revise its policy or appeal. Instead, the MTA will run the ads as the references to Muslims as “savages” do not constitute “demeaning” language under the current guidelines.
The MTA said that, in spite of the geopolitical events in the Middle East, it must accept the ad, but it could have appealed or revised its policies. The judge’s initial ruling gave the authority enough of an out to reject the ad had it worked to restructure its advertising guidelines, but the Board hasn’t met since the ruling came out. So the ad will arrive, amidst controversial and fanfare. Hopefully, a new ad policy isn’t too far behind.
As I took a walk through the new subway entrance at Atlantic Avenue on Monday, the fact that I was essentially strolling through a giant advertisement was not lost on me. Barclays is paying the MTA $4 million in 20 installments over the next two decades to keep its name on the Atlantic Ave. station complex and the subway map. Even as it serves as an identifier of what will become a major destination for Brooklyn-bound subway riders, it’s still advertising.
Over the years — actually the decades and even the century — New Yorkers have grown accustomed to advertising in the subways. Billboards have long decorated the station walls, and while old advertisements in vintage trains seem quaint by comparison to today’s staid placards, they’re still ads nonetheless. They’ve been there since nearly Day One, and they’ll continue to be there long into the subway future.
Lately, the MTA has beefed up its advertising offerings. With a lucrative deal in place with CBS Outdoors, the MTA has expanded advertising tremendously. Video boards outside of stations flash dynamic ads while station takeovers — particularly at Times Square and Grand Central — see the walls plastered with posters. A Shuttle train gets its monthly wrapping, and even staircases and turnstiles carry corporate sponsorships. Now, Metrocard fronts and backs are for sale, and for the MTA, this means dollars.
Earlier this week, David Dunlap of The Times explored the proliferation of advertising underground. The MTA, he found, has upped its advertising revenue to $120 million from $106 million five years ago and just $38 million 15 years ago. As the subways have been slowly modernized, ridership has spiked and safety has improved in leaps and bounds, advertisers are willing to spend dollars to attract captive underground audiences. Advertising dollars, Dunlap notes, now make up one percent of the MTA’s budget.
Not everyone, though, is happy about it. As Transit hopes to expand its digital advertising footprint while keeping ads somewhat reasonable — buses, for instance, are not fully wrapped due to safety concerns — critics voiced their concerns. “We’ve gotten to the point now where the M.T.A. doesn’t respect its own environment and is filling it with sight pollution,” Siva Vaidhyanathan, a UVA professor who once taught in New York, said “A bright yellow subway car, branded to sell something, is not comfortable, it’s not respectful and it’s not dignified. Environmentally, the city should be paying attention to dignity as a quality-of-life indicator.”
That is, of course, a complaint put forward since the dawn of the age of subways. As the first operators of the subway argued, advertising was an integral part of their plan. As long as billboards didn’t obscure station names, August Belmont wanted ads, to the chagrin of the City’s Rapid Transit Commission and William Barclay Parsons. Belmont successfully defended a lawsuit against the ads brought forth by the Manhattan Borough President, and Squire Vickers uttered a classic line: “It is hoped that the revenue will prove to be an efficient balm for hurt minds.”
That is, once again, where we are. The ads are indeed everywhere, and we accept it. Some become conversation pieces of parts of New York City lore — Dr. Zizmor, anymore? All in all, they have endured as a balm for hurt minds. We pay in ads or we pay in dollars. The choice is an easy one.