Dissecting Metlink’s new public transport fare evasion ads

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Metlink has been sold a terrible marketing campaign to discourage fare evasion. According to Metlink’s media release:

Fare evadersWith fare evaders taking more than 225,000 trips each weekday on Victoria’s public transport network, Metlink is stepping up its fight against fare evasion today with the launch of a new advertising campaign.

The campaign includes a television commercial that depicts fare evaders as scribbled out images that have no right to travel on Victoria’s public transport network.

Metlink spokesperson Michelle Herbert said with 13 per cent of passengers not paying their way, the carrying capacity of hundreds of trains, trams and buses are being taken up by freeloaders.

“Fare evaders are occupying valuable space that rightly belongs to fare-paying passengers,” Ms Herbert said.

The Metlink TV commercial was created by Marmalade, a Melbourne agency. The sketched characters represent fare evaders who take up seats and space from paying passengers.

Joel Pront, TVC director from Collider, said: “The idea that an apparently victimless crime like fare evasion is wrong, can be difficult to communicate. Perpetrators can shrug it off, and say that it’s harmless, that’s why the visualisation of this spot was so important.”

“We needed to develop this idea of the fare evader as a pariah, anti-social, unpleasant and a hindrance to the rest of society.”

Watch the video. Can you see what is wrong?

This ad campaign is about changing behaviour. It wants to stop people from fare evading by buying a ticket. I think this advertising campaign seriously misses the mark and may actually increase the number of fare evaders.

1. Firstly, the ad normalises fare evasion by showing how prevalent it is – there are often multiple fare evaders shown. Not only that, but the fare evasion goes unpunished. It creates the clear impression that not only is fare evasion common, but it is safe. Despite saying that there are more ticket inspectors than ever – it does not show them, or show a fare evader being caught.

2.The ad models the undesired behaviour rather than the desired behaviour. The desired behaviour is for passengers to buy tickets. Instead of modeling the desired behaviour, the ad shows people how to perform the undesired behaviour – right up to jumping the ticket barriers at the train station. It promotes and reinforces fare evasion.

3. The other passengers don’t disapprove of fare evaders. In fact, they don’t notice them at all. They don’t take up space and they aren’t a hindrance. The visual of fuzzy lines makes the fare evader non-threatening – certainly not the unpleasant. No one chastises or disapproves of the fare evader in the ad.

4. The fare evader is shown to be a “normal” person. This reinforces that “anyone could be a fare evader”. Fare evaders aren’t anti-social or unpleasant. They’re mop-haired hipsters. They’re your cousin or nephew. They could be anyone.

5. The point where evasion takes place is not mentioned. People chose to fare evade at the ticket gate – by not buying a ticket. This is the primary opportunity to create norms and model desired behaviour – in fact, for behaviour change, this is the main time you would want to model that behaviour.

Basically, this is a 45 second TV commercial promoting fare evasion, not advertising purchasing tickets. I would be very interested in seeing if there is any decrease in fare evading that could be directly attributed to this ad.

Big budget television ads, internet ads and mobile websites are great for making companies (or government agencies) thinking they are doing something – but in reality, nothing actually happens.

What could Metlink (or Marmalade) have done differently? Here are my ideas:

1. Model the desired behaviour – show passengers buying tickets.

2. Use social norms – to discourage fare evasion show people disapproving of the undesired behaviour. For example, the fare evader could be criticised by friends or other passengers.

3. Show the penalty (injuctive norm) – if the major penalty for fare evaders is a fine, show the fare evader getting caught.

4. Use descriptive norms to demonstrate how rare and uncommon fare evasion is – show the majority of passengers paying for their fare.

5. Use social diffusion to promote adoption of the desired behaviour – by emphasising the perceived risk of evasion and how the undesired behaviour is incompatible with values of target audience (e.g. “I’m not the kind of person to fare evade”).

The basis of these ideas is to focus on behaviour change – preventing fare evasion and promoting ticket buying. There’s plenty of research about how to effectively promote behaviour change. Television ads traditionally don’t do well in changing behaviour.

UPDATE 07/03/2012

There’s a new round of Metlink ads in the “Marmalade” style which have fixed a major problem with the earlier ads: they show the penalty, in the form of the mop-haired hipster fare evader being fronted by two ticket-inspectors (AKA “authorised officers”). This is a big improvement.

Unfortunately they still talk about fare evasion being “stealing”. As long as most people view fare evasion as victimless, it won’t be perceived as seriously as theft. (This is a classic example of the problem of the commons.)

4 responses to “Dissecting Metlink’s new public transport fare evasion ads”

  1. Dean Avatar

    I wonder if it’s trying to develop a ‘license to police’?

    It seems a particularly inappropriate pitch given the daily catalog of difficulties people have in using Myki.

  2. Edwina Avatar

    Good points Alex. I was thinking about this the other day because unions and Metlink could actually learn a lot from each other here: both have to overcome the “free-rider paradox”. In well-unionised workplaces, even today, free riders are pariahs.

    Mind you, I don’t think unions would appreciate the term “scab” being normalised as a result of being applied to fare-evaders!

  3. Desmond O'Toole Avatar
    Desmond O’Toole

    I take your points, Alex, and agree that the advert is pretty woeful, like so many such “public service” ads aired here in Ireland. But, given Edwina’s comments about free-riders, I think there is perhaps another way to approach this.

    The transport system (and trade unions for that matter) occupy the public space. The public space is where citizens come together; it belongs to all of us and has to be maintained by all of us. We all contribute so that the public space is welcoming, effective and efficient in meeting our needs and offering us opportunities that otherwise would not be there (except to the privileged). Those who don’t contribute stand outside of the this social contract, they “vandalise” and undermine the public space and weaken it for all .. including themselves.

    Perhaps if we saw public servcie adverts that sought to embrace and encourage these values we might see people’s perceptions of the publc space and public services (and TUs) change for the better .. we might even see the free-riders change their outlook!


    1. admin Avatar

      Hi Desmond,

      Thanks for the comment. Regardless of the politics of public assets, the key issue is behaviour change. Education and information does not change behaviour – and there is plenty of research that shows this.

      For unions looking at this ad, information campaigns should be avoided. What actually changes behaviour – for unions, joining, taking collective action – is what we should be aiming for.

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