Car Commercials Versus Sustainable Transportation: Why public perception of sustainable transportation matters now more than ever

By Stewart Slaymaker, Senior Program Manager

I spend a lot of time listening to Spotify. Unfortunately for Spotify, their efforts to get me to pay for their premium, ad-free service have yet to pay off. Unfortunately for me, this means that my musical entertainment is sometimes interrupted by adverts – adverts which I noticed can often be dominated by one product – cars.

Having noticed this deluge of car adverts, I started noting down some of their messages, including the following:

 “Driving, it makes me feel powerful”

“Living for the journey, not the destination”

“So you can conquer every day”

“The original adventurer”

“Built to command. Broaden your horizons”

“Full of life”

“I’m a fourth-generation Ford employee. My grandfather was so happy to hear that I was carrying on the tradition…You can get employee pricing like me!”

These adverts all seem to have some common themes – freedom, control, adventure and tradition. And since the COVID-19 pandemic, many car brands have adapted their messaging to emphasize that they are here for you during these uncertain times, further affirming their importance in our lives.

With fears of contracting COVID-19 on public transportation, car commercials will likely continue to promote messages of safety and independence. China’s recent car sales boom shows that more people may choose to drive alone than return to taking transit once the lockdown is lifted.  

With the unclear future of urban transportation post COVID-19, we need positive messaging about sustainable transportation now, more than ever.

Transit ridership has declined drastically since the onset of COVID-19 but our cities and our environment do not have the capacity for everyone to shift from taking transit to driving alone.

Unfortunately, even before COVID-19, public transit has had a poor public image, often being included in entertainment at the expense of a joke. The popular Netflix show, Sex Education, is a great example of this, where the bus that a main character is waiting to catch is unfortunately referred to as the ‘poverty shuttle’.

Look too at how a major transit delay makes headlines and dominates local social media, but perhaps a traffic jam that also causes delays, is just treated as a normal everyday event with little of the same backlash.

Now with the added challenge of COVID-19, public transit’s reputation has been further damaged. Not only is public transit frequently depicted as being unreliable, or only for people who can’t afford cars, now it is also seen as unsafe because of the risk of being exposed to COVID-19. Public transit also faces the additional challenge of having to battle these negative perceptions without the huge advertising budgets that car companies enjoy.

This is the challenge facing the sustainable transportation industry and the work that pointA does. Not only is there a challenge to ensure that there is a transportation network for public transit, cycling, walking and so on, but we face the additional challenge of convincing the public that the sustainable transportation network provides the freedom, control, safety and adventure people are seeking.

Fortunately, there are some great examples of promotions for sustainable transportation. Transport for London’s brilliant video shows many of the ways you can easily get around the UK’s capital without a car, and Washington DC’s showcases a new rapid transit line in this catchy video. Locally, GO Transit took some of those hallmarks of car adverts and applied them to their own video and the TTC’s We Move You campaign showcased how transit can connect you to Toronto’s art and culture scene.

None of this of course is a war on the car, as there are trips where a car is essential. Carsharing company Zipcar eloquently summed this up on a recent advert about its new park pass program, which showed a group of hikers arriving at a park in a Zipcar vehicle, accompanied by the message “When the subway ends before your adventure begins. Zipcar will just get you there. Sometimes you just need a car.” On a lighter note, James Corden’s Carpool Karaokewhether he is actually driving or not – shows a fun side of carpooling that many of us might not have seen before.

Of course, all these examples are from a time before COVID-19 and any future messaging will look different as we adapt to our “new normal” of urban mobility. Public transit and carsharing companies will need to find ways to build public trust by communicating the ways they are reducing the risk of exposure to COVID-19 once we gradually return to our normal commuting habits.

Fortunately, we know that people are more likely to change their commute if there is a disruption in their normal routine. With so many people abandoning their normal commute and working from home these past few months, there is an opportunity to reinvent how we get around our cities. 

At pointA, we are looking forward to providing employers with the tools and resources they need to help their staff plan their new commute once they return to the workplace through the Smart Commute program. Learn more about what we offer here.


Photo by Aaron Ledesma on Unsplash

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