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$5 million ad campaign tells Chicago-area drivers: Public transit is cool

And the Oscar for Man Riding Subway goes to…Bradley Cooper. Cooper, an Oscar nominee for his role in “American Sniper,” has been spotted by photographers multiple times on the New York subway in the past few months.

Cooper, who is performing in a Broadway play, confirmed he takes public transit in a television interview in December.

“I take the subway everyday everywhere,” he told CBS.

He's not the only celebrity riding Metropolitan Transportation Authority trains to get around New York City. Jay Z, Mariah Carey, Katie Holmes, Tom Hanks and Helen Mirren, among other bold-faced names, have also been photographed on the subway by fellow passengers, who share the pictures on social media.

While stars have made New York trains cool to ride, Chicago transit agencies aren’t so lucky with free celebrity marketing.

Instead, the Regional Transportation Authority—the umbrella organization that includes the CTA— launched a $5 million marketing campaign in January aimed at getting 20-something drivers and others to hang up their car keys and take the train and bus. 

The ads, which include a picture of a parking space with the tagline “ ‘I love paying $30 for parking!’ said no one ever” and a young woman reading a tablet on the bus with the phrase “Read something better than license plates,” are trying to lure Chicago-area residents who drive to work, tourists and infrequent riders to buses and trains, RTA executive director Leanne Redden said.

But while the ads, which will run through summer 2017, may serve as a reminder that public transit exists in Chicago, they may not nudge drivers to change habits—afterall, the ads are not promoting anything new beyond the current system of buses and trains, local marketing professors told RedEye.

Kim Moon, a marketing lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said she presented the RTA’s Ride On campaign, which appears online, in print and broadcast, to a group of about 100 of her Millennial students for their impressions. Moon said the students understood the message that taking public transit can be cheaper than parking and more convenient than sitting in traffic.

She said the humor also played well with the group because it’s an effective technique in reaching Millennials.

She said the ads reinforced the brand of public transportation—it was clear what the campaign is selling. But as far as getting people to ride public transportation more, she wasn’t sure the campaign was effective.

Moon thought the students, many of whom already take some form of public transportation, didn’t learn anything new.

“I just didn't get the feeling that this would actually change their behavior,” Moon said. "For some of them, it just makes more sense to drive.”

Most Millennials in the Chicago area have long chosen to drive to work, census figures show.

A recent census analysis found that 75.9 percent of residents in the Chicago area between the ages of 18 to 34 said they drove or carpooled to work from 2009-2013, a figure that hasn’t changed much in 30 years.

The cash-strapped RTA acknowledged that expanding bus and rail services is an important part of increasing ridership—38 percent of households in Cook and surrounding counties ride public transit regularly—but said similar marketing campaigns in Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles have helped boost ridership.

But those cities don’t see the ridership levels of New York’s and Chicago’s transit systems, the No. 1 and 2 systems in the country by passenger miles, respectively.

The RTA serves a region of 3,700 square miles and counted 651.4 million rides in 2013 while New York’s MTA covers a 5,000-square-mile area and logs 2.69 billion rides annually.

RTA’s campaign may help boost these numbers but it’s not likely the ads will cause a massive upsurge in ridership, said Tim Calkins, a Northwestern marketing professor.

Still, Calkins said the campaign “makes the case quite well that there's compelling reason to ride public transportation” by highlighting the benefts of riding transit.

“Marketing campaigns like this take time. People don't see a commercial and go out and change what they're doing,” Calkins said. “It's a first step. It gets people thinking about public transit.”

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