Soundings

Benjamin A. Plotinsky
Nonstop Propaganda
Public-relations “improvements” on the New York subway
Summer 2012

New York commuters have long entertained themselves with the advertisements thoughtfully posted in subway cars for their amusement: Dr. Zizmor’s dermatological promises, the even grander promises of the School of Practical Philosophy, the competing offers of the chiropractors who will adjust your back and the trial lawyers who will sue them for you. But since late 2010, the state’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the subways, has treated straphangers to a series of ads that are altogether different. These ads tout the MTA itself. Their purpose is to tell you what a good job the MTA is doing, a message that’s emphasized by the tagline at the bottom: “Improving, non-stop.” Get it?

Some of the ads celebrate particular achievements, usually by explaining their importance to you. “Cortlandt Station is now the new Cortlandt Station,” one announces. “Expanded parking. Lighted sidewalks. Extension of the pedestrian overpass. And a new elevator, enclosed staircase, and customer waiting area. All will combine to make your time at the station as comfortable as your time on the train.” Another ad, hailing the “downtown crossroads to everywhere,” proclaims that “at the new Fulton Street complex, you’ll easily connect to 11 subway lines, the World Trade Center, and four levels of shopping. Easily being the key word.” A third tells the commuter that “hundreds of miles of subway and train tracks have recently been replaced or renewed. And hundreds more to come. Which means smoother, more reliable trips for you.” Still another brags, “We said we’d consolidate 117 phone numbers to just 1. And we have. Call 511, say MTA and get the information you need about MTA services.”

Other ads are less specific, such as the one that asks, “What’s new?” The answer that follows, ending with an optimistic ellipsis, is: “Better connections, better bus service, better trips, better info, better bridges, better . . .” There’s even an eye-level ad to explain the ad campaign itself: “We’re making improvements that you can see every day. Including a new way to tell you about improvements. Just look up.” If you obediently “look up,” you’ll see, among the overhead ads that line the train’s upper wall, one of the ads that describes a particular “improvement.” (Of late, the ads’ tagline has changed from “Improving, non-stop” to the drier “MTA Capital Program.”)

Of course, every MTA-sponsored ad takes up space that could otherwise have been occupied by a paying advertiser. The MTA argues, implausibly, that the ads don’t cost the public a penny, since they’re part of the agency’s contract with the media company CBS Outdoor, which manages the subways’ advertising space. But if you sign a contract that reserves a big chunk of ad space for yourself—it adds up to about 10 percent of the fleet’s overhead advertising space, according to the MTA—you’re limiting your ad revenue. Why would the cash-strapped MTA throw all that money away?

The likely answer is that it desperately needs good publicity. The agency plans 7.5 percent fare hikes in 2013, 2015, and 2017, even though it passed steep hikes less than two years ago—which themselves represented “the third time in three years that New Yorkers face a stiff rise in the cost of getting around,” Michael Grynbaum pointed out in the New York Times. Those hikes are all separate from the payroll tax that downstate employers began paying in 2009 to fund the MTA. The agency’s current ads implicitly assure you, the exasperated commuter, that you’re getting “improvements” for all this new money.

True, that assurance flies in the face of what the MTA’s own director of government affairs, Hilary Ring, recently told the city council: that the upcoming fare hikes wouldn’t result in any service improvements. “So essentially the fare and toll increases, it is almost dollar for dollar being eaten up by our increases in pension and retiree health-care costs,” Ring said. As City Journal contributing editor Nicole Gelinas has written, the transit workers’ union has managed to preserve a minimum retirement age of 55, even as other New York public-sector unions saw theirs rise to 63; no wonder costs for retirees are soaring. But if you’re inclined to blame your rising fare on the transit workers, well, there’s an ad for that. Its headline admonishes you that “improvements don’t just happen,” and its kicker administers the moral: “Our thanks to our fellow employees for their hard work. And solid results.”

It would be easy to dismiss the MTA’s ad campaign with a smile. The agency has a history of fecklessness in visual communications; one especially unhelpful poster in some subway trains directs you to consult another poster, presumably mounted in some other train, for instructions on what to do in case of fire or a medical emergency. Amusing, too, is the MTA’s current attempt to imitate trendy Madison Avenue syntax. With incomplete sentences. And lots of periods.

Still, there’s something disturbing about government-sponsored advertising. You don’t have to cite the extremes—the state-celebrating telescreen news in 1984, the ubiquitous slogans of Mao’s China—to agree that the subway is no place for propaganda. But as it happens, the MTA is already verging on Orwellian menace. “We have big plans to make buses move faster,” reads a nebulous MTA ad posted on the side of some city buses. “Please don’t get in the way. The fine for each violation is $115 or more.” And that’s all, with no explanation of what constitutes a “violation” or how the hapless citizen can avoid being fined.

These days, New Yorkers are increasingly bombarded with government-sponsored ads telling them to stop smoking, stop drinking soda, start breast-feeding their babies, and so forth. These ads are inappropriate uses of taxpayer dollars, the work of a government that’s impudent enough to take people’s earnings for the express purpose of telling them how to improve themselves. But the MTA’s ads are even worse, since their aim is to encourage you to approve of a government agency that’s misspending your money—chiefly on outsize benefits for retirees but also on self-promotion. It’s a vicious circle: citizens’ taxes and fares fund ads that encourage citizens to agree to still-higher taxes and fares. Which means (as the MTA might put it) more expensive trips for you.

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