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Ads on SF Commuter Line Promote Driving

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

By Ilana Lipsett

While riding San Francisco’s commuter train (BART) the other day, I was struck by the seeming incongruousness of the signs on adjacent walls. Closest to the door was the brightly painted “Bike Space,” BART’s designated bike priority area where even strollers and luggage take a backseat to cyclists. Just a few seats over was a huge poster advertising a nearby mall, which to its credit made clear it was accessible by BART, but also attempted to lure shoppers with a free $15 gas card as a reward for spending “$150 or more within seven days!”

The mall ad, half of which was taken up by a smiling tween balancing her 6 bags of new purchases, is presumably targeting an entirely different audience than the bike-to-BART crowd. But the striking contrast between the signage – one facilitating easy use of non-car transportation, and the other rewarding consumption with a gas card – got me thinking about the responsibility that an organization has with regards to the ad space it sells. I realize that most transit agencies are facing budget shortfalls and therefore would tend towards accepting, rather than rejecting ads. But would it have been difficult to negotiate with the mall to offer a $15 BART card instead of a gas card?
As a public transit entity, BART’s very existence espouses principles of sustainability. Should BART, then, allow ads that promote the use of unsustainable transportation (which also happen to directly compete with its own service)? Or should it, or any public transit authority for that matter, have a responsibility to be selective about the advertisements posted in its cars?

I am not arguing against free speech, and I realize that such battles play out on the sides of buses all the time. And precedent suggests that free speech advocates would likely win if they challenged a transit authority’s decision to remove an ad, but perhaps these agencies should be more selective to begin with. Buses and trains, with their large and presumably transit-minded ridership, are perfect spaces to further messages of sustainability. But earlier this year, the Massachusetts’ Transit Authority caused an uproar when it banned a seemingly noncontroversial ad challenging Sen. Scott Brown and his record on the environment.  The MTA deemed the ad too controversial, infuriating environmental activists and others. In response, the organization sponsoring the ads simply moved them to other highly visible outdoor spaces that didn’t require a stamp of approval.

Government agencies frequently use their purchasing power to promulgate their values, including promotion of sustainable development. Don’t public transit agencies want more riders? They should use ad space to applaud and reward existing riders, not encourage more car use. (I left a message for BART’s in-train poster advertising manager regarding the mall ad, but have not yet received a response.) What if BART posters, instead of promoting consumer-driven marketing, told riders how much CO2 they were saving by their BART trip?

Or, going one step further, should BART allow riders an ad-free space by eliminating ads altogether? We are constantly bombarded with advertisements, with some estimates putting our personal ad views at upwards of 5000 a day! To put this in perspective, if each ad were a page of an average edition of the New York Times, it would be like reading every page of 120 newspapers every day. The impact of constant ad bombardment no doubt influences our consumer behavior. So instead of ads encouraging consumption, what if BART implicitly discouraged needless spending simply by not having ads at all? Sao Paulo’s 2007 ban on all outdoor advertising (including on buses) has been met by a highly supportive population, who appreciates the break from ads.

BART and other public transit agencies have a captive audience and a choice in what messages they want their riders to absorb. Perhaps the message most consistent with BART’s promoting sustainability would be no message at all.

Ilana Lipsett is an MBA candidate at the Presidio Graduate School.

Want to learn more about Presidio and this project? Click here.