That’s A (Bus) Wrap!

Transit inglorious 

Travelling about Hamilton in a massive advertisement on wheels

By Randy Kay
It was an inspired moment. It was late, there was no transit, I was walking home with a long way to go, tired and hungry. Then I saw the neon pizza parlour sign: In a master stroke of slacker verve, I went in and bargained to get myself delivered home with my pizza. 2 for 1.
That was a couple decades ago and I figure it’s a short step from savant to sucker. Now I find myself sitting on an HSR bus that is, from the outside, a giant Gino’s Pizza advertisement. The entire bus is wrapped, including the windows, which obscures my view as we ascend the escarpment.
Since when did advertising on buses begin to displace the rider’s experience, and maybe take a slice or two of their dignity? In the pursuit of advertising revenue, has the transit system gone too far?
Inside the bus I can take the advertising signs above the windows. These interior ads are mostly “freebies” for city services — practise safe sex, that sort of thing explains Andy McLaughlin, senior manager of transit at the HSR.

Since when did advertising on buses begin to displace the rider’s experience? In the pursuit of advertising revenue, has the transit system gone too far?

Outside the bus, large exterior ads, the kind that often see the bus “wrapped” with vinyl graphics, are not even aimed at HSR customers, but instead at traffic beside and behind the bus.
The driver’s side is the most sought after mobile billboard space to catch the SUV driver’s eye, since it is uninterrupted by bus doors. In transit advertising parlance, this is the domain of the “King Card.”
You can advertise in the space for “cards” or go for a wrap. The curb side goes by the tag “70 Card” for a 70-inch advertising space, the rear of the bus is ripe for a “tail wrap.” Other mobile ad-lingo includes “Partial Mural,” “Side Mural,” “Full Wrap,” “Super Tail,” or the “Full Back.”
Three sides of the bus can be wrapped in ads, and wraps are outpacing smaller advertising cards on the sides of buses, says McLaughlin. After all, why take 70 inches when you can take a full canvas for a triptych of advertising glory as buses trundle through town.
Only the front of the bus is free of sales rental space, to allow for considerations you’d expect, like driver’s vision, and to give passengers at least a glimpse of fleet colours as they await the festooned flyer.
Ads are administered by a third party, Streetseen Media, which sells the ad space and provides an “annual minimum guaranteed payment” to the HSR of $440,000 a year, says McLaughlin. The HSR nets 60 per cent of revenue over and above that threshold.
The HSR receives occasional complaints from riders who don’t like their view obstructed since people often use landmarks to determine bus stop locations.
Buses already have a bad rap (pun intended), even among some “higher order” transit advocates, so covering sleek paint jobs and a chance for some city/transit branding is being sacrificed to sell other people’s products. Even pizza.
McLaughlin has an administrator’s eye on the money, as he should. Any move to limit advertising would mean a hit on the revenue that the HSR has come to depend on. But if City Hall would use revenue from federal gas taxes meant to lower greenhouse gas emissions on transit, rather than roads, we could get some pizzazz rather than pizza ads.
There are some spectacular rides on many routes. Any route up or down the Mountain will give panoramic views of the lower city, splendidly splayed out with the blue centre of the bay reminding us that the city is built around (and on top of) water.
One of my favourite bus routes for diverse city views is the #4 bus. Hop on downtown and trip through high energy Jamesville, past Pier 4, along Burlington Street through Steel Mills, past the Hells Angels Club House on Gage (is that a tourist attraction?) over to Woodward and end gloriously atop Mount Albion.
The HSR could even invest in smart technology to enhance the untapped educational and tourism potential of fixed route buses. Bring some of the history (“Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie played here for striking Steelworkers in ’46”), and current events (to your left you see the new GO Station being built) in a way that adds value to the experience of riding the bus.
As it is now, riders are an afterthought to poorly considered advertising.
Photo by Randy Kay (did not appear with article)

By Randy Kay

Experienced not-for-profit communications and citizen engagement professional

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