Brilliant CTA Ad Campaign Promotes Smart Riding, Shames Rude Customers

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Image: CTA

If you’ve ever visited a country where people always walk on the left and stand to the right on train station escalators, you’ve probably come home to clogged ‘L’ station escalators and thought, “Why don’t Chicagoans use common sense when using transit?”

Fortunately, the CTA is rolling out a hilarious new courtesy campaign with helpful reminders to avoid common behavior that is inefficient, rude, and even potentially dangerous. The ads cover everything from escalator etiquette to excessively loud music to holding the doors open.

Image: CTA

Most of this stuff, such as waiting to let other passengers off before boarding the train, should already be ironclad rules for seasoned riders, but it’s a great idea to spread to word about proper riding practices to rapid transit newbies. I also fully support the CTA shaming customers who don’t keep up their end of the social contract when it comes to yelling into cell phones, littering, and hogging an extra seat with a bag.

Featuring clever – and occasionally outrageous – ad copy plus excellent photography, this initiative is light years ahead of the agency’s previous courtesy promotion, the 2002 “Don’t Be Jack” campaign. That one was a takeoff on the then-popular “See Dick drink, see Dick drive, see Dick die, don’t be a Dick” t-shirts, which were effective peer-to-peer messaging against drunk driving. However, the CTA’s bowdlerized version, with lame graphics and painfully unfunny text, probably didn’t have much impact on customer behavior.

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Image: CTA

For example, an ad from the old campaign showed a bunch of stick figures with their hands over their ears and the inane couplet “When using your cell, be sure not to yell.” The new version features a great photograph of real people grimacing as a woman screeches into her iPhone and the scathing put-down, “No one is interested in your conversation – trust us.” Which do you think would be more likely to get people to keep their voices down?

Image: CTA

Arguably, some of the new ads are a tad too in-your-face, such as the stomach-churning image of ‘L’ riders sitting chest-deep in garbage with the caption, “Your maid doesn’t work here. Please don’t leave your crap behind.” But, hey, that just makes the message more memorable.

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Image: CTA

Best of all, the new campaign cost the agency exactly zero dollars in additional spending, according to spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski, since all of the ads were brainstormed and produced in-house, rather than by an outside ad agency. Almost all of the people in the images are CTA employees, plus a few unpaid actors. The PSAs don’t result in any loss of ad revenue for the agency, because they only occupy unsold spaces on buses and trains. The messages are also being promoted via social media.

The ads are based on the CTA’s most common etiquette issues, judging from calls to customer service, comments on social media, and observations by staffers out in the field, according to Hosinski. “We really want this campaign to be part of a constructive and helpful dialogue, and a courteous one at that,” she said. “If we can make the riding environment just a little better, the campaign will be a success.”

Image: MTA

Conspicuous by its absence is the issue of “manspreading,” the boorish practice of sitting with your knees apart, so that they encroach on other riders. New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority addressed that hot topic in a recent courtesy campaign. However, Honsinski said the CTA has only received two complaints about manspreading, and the term wasn’t even coined by the New York Times until last December.

One minor criticism of the CTA ads is that almost all of the models in the 13 images (see the whole array here) appear to be young professionals. In the future, it would be great to side a wider range of ages and occupations portrayed — reflecting the city’s demographics – so that more CTA riders could better relate to the message.

Image: CTA

I’m also a little puzzled by the ad asking customers stand up for expectant mothers. If anyone knows a tactful way to offer your seat to a person who appears to be pregnant, without running the risk of causing major offense if that’s not the case, please let me know in the comments section.

  • ohsweetnothing

    I hear that concern re: pregnant women all the time…is it really that difficult?? I can honestly say I’ve never been wrong when facing that scenario.

    How about this. If a woman’s protruding belly is poking you in the cheek, stand up and offer her your seat. That way even if she’s not pregnant, you no longer have a belly poking you in the cheek!

  • JacobEPeters

    I think the best thing to do is just ask anyone else if they’d like your seat, it’s worked for me.

  • That’s what I would probably do as well. On the other hand, if the person is not pregnant, they will surely assume you are offering your seat because you think they are.

    However, a much more important issue is that it’s common for customers to fail to offer a seat to riders who are clearly pregnant. It appears that too many of these women, as well as others who need to sit — such as seniors and people with non-obvious disabilities — suffer in silence rather than speak up and ask for a seat, so it’s important for able-bodied customers to be proactive about standing up.

    Recently, I was standing with my bicycle on an ‘L’ car with no empty seats. A woman who appeared to be in her seventies or eighties boarded and hung onto a pole, looking unsteady. Maybe this wasn’t the best approach, but I called out, “Anyone want to offer your seat to a senior?” Nothing happened. A few stops later, someone got off the train and the lady was finally able to sit down.

  • Anne A

    That’s what I do. If they want the seat, I give it to them. If they don’t want it, that’s okay. I’d rather give them the choice.

  • rohmen

    Not a defense, but I think a lot of it has to do with how absorbed people get in electronics nowadays. I know I’ve ridden multiple stops while staring at a book or phone, and then finally looked up and noticed a person was close by that could use a seat more than myself. I have then given it up. Not an excuse, but definitely the reality for many..

  • This is nice. I was just thinking about how CTA never seemed to have courtesy reminder ads when I saw the ones on New York’s subway. These ones are much better than New York’s too! Much more eye-catching and “fun” to look at.

  • planetshwoop

    The London system has solved the “is she pregnant or not” issue by allowing women who are pregnant buttons with “Baby on Board”. There’s no doubt about offering your seat then. More info:

  • Ridonrides

    Pregnant women aren’t that delicate. Many work up until their due date. However anyone who is tired would appreciate a seat being offered. As a young healthy woman I wouldn’t be offended if a man offered me a seat. I wouldn’t assume that the other person only offered because they erroneously thought I was pregnant.

  • ridonrides

    Sad that nobody gave up their seat. I noticed on San Fransisco buses, priority seating was heavily enforced. I don’t think bus drivers do that here.

  • Anne A

    Everyone’s situation is different. I’ve had some friends who rode their bikes and did pretty much any normal activity almost up to their due dates. Others had to take it much easier.

  • Anne A

    My experiences have varied quite a bit by El line and area of the city. I’ve seen a lot more courtesy on the south side. Last summer when I was hobbling around with an orthopedic boot and crutches, I always got offered a seat on south side buses. Trying to get on the red line downtown, I sometimes had to ask rather insistently.

    In past years of similar circumstances, I tried getting a seat on a morning purple line or red line train at Howard. The worst offenders at not offering seats were women I nicknamed the “fur coat bitches” – pampered looking young women who always occupied the handicap seats. I asked and most of them wouldn’t even make eye contact. The only way I got them to move is if I stomped on their feet – either with crutch or foot. Anything less got no response. They were horrible. I hated to resort to anything that rude, but there was no way I could stand all the way downtown without risking more extensive injuries. I was grateful when someone else offered seats and I didn’t have to resort to that. Unfortunately, those other seats were usually much more difficult to get into, since I was usually on crutches for knee injuries and couldn’t easily bend my knee.

  • Anne A

    I try to keep some awareness with peripheral vision if I’m reading.

  • David P.

    On the Mexico City subway this weekend, I watched an older man give up his seat for a woman, immediately followed by a younger man giving up his seat for the older man. This was a nice display of courtesy and respect.

  • R.A. Stewart

    H. Allen Smith (a writer, mostly of humor, from my antediluvian time, well worth getting acquainted with) traveled extensively in Mexico and wrote that Mexicans are the most courteous people on earth; an impression reinforced by my brief time there. There is no danger that we will ever be described that way.

  • R.A. Stewart

    A good idea for self-protection if nothing else.

  • R.A. Stewart

    I’d like to see these ads printed on little cards or bookmarks that you could carry around and quietly hand to offenders. Some, of course, like the “fur coat bitches” Anne A references below, are impervious to shame.

  • David P.

    It’s a pity. As the saying goes, “Lo cortés no quita lo valiente” !

  • Anne A

    The transit passenger equivalent of “I parked in the bike lane” stickers would be stickers saying “I stole a handicap seat from someone who needed it.”

  • R.A. Stewart

    I like that!

  • Arjay

    Great campaign but the idiots that it should reach won’t be paying attention or will think it means everyone but them.


An existing ad and info panel in the Orange Line's Midway station. Photo: CTA

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