John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
Get ready to have your subway behavior corrected by cute dogs, cats, and a sneezing panda.
As their comrades in New York City endure their Summer of Hell, Boston’s subway riders are preparing for their own commuting challenge: possible system-wide cute overload. Last week, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority launched a public transit etiquette campaign based on animal GIFs.
A rotating selection of 10 GIFs started showing up on flat screens in the Boston T’s Copley Station as a pilot program between the MBTA and OUTFRONT Media, which handles advertising for many U.S. transit agencies including those in New York, L.A., and Washington, D.C. The ad agency is curating its GIFs via a partnership with search engine GIPHY, and the programming leans heavily on kittens, doggos, and that sneezing panda. In one example, a Labrador-looking hound trots through a crosswalk with two saddlebags holding puppies. A message below reads, “Backpacks take up space and hit people—please take them off while riding the train.”
The GIFs are meant to feed information to riders in the only form society can now handle: funny little videos with cute animals. “Our goal is to provide these messages in an engaging way that earns peoples’ attention, which we believe will make the point of the messages resonate more,” says Jason Kuperman, chief product marketing officer for OUTFRONT Media. “The topics cover things such as not taking up more than one seat, standing aside to let people on and off the train in order to make station stop times more efficient, and even the common courtesy of covering your nose when you sneeze.”
Right now the GIFs now only appear in one location, but they could soon spread to more than 90 stations as the media firm installs its flat screens throughout the system. Will this create Blade Runner-esque barrage of advertising, with commuters unable to avoid confronting creatures doing adorable things while stressing best train practices?
Kuperman doesn’t think so. “The PSAs run in a rotation and are only 15 seconds long, so we don’t believe they create visual overload,” he says. “So far we have heard only positive things—maybe because people are used to this kind of imagery nowadays, or maybe because they enjoy discovering these amusing visual treats during their commute or transit journey.”