Sorry Mrs T but bus adverts are big news


Powerful advertising messages shown on London’s buses are causing a stir


By James Ranger

Few figures cast a shadow over contemporary politics like former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher and her legacy still divides popular opinion.

Some see her as pioneer whose brand of uncompromising conservatism should be revisited to steer us out of the economic mire. Others say her career is a reminder of the perils of disenfranchising the working classes.

Perhaps her greatest gift to the modern era was the political sound-bite. The clear favourite among her detractors is one which her supporters maintain is purely apocryphal: “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.”

Some argue it took someone like Thatcher to look on bus users as an underclass. What’s more, the Iron Lady clearly did not foresee the role that the humble omnibus would come to play in public debate at the start of the 21st century.

In the 1980s what was displayed on the sides of buses was the concern of working-class commuters. Fast forward 20 years and bus adverts are big news.

A fortnight ago, drug charity Release began a campaign on the side of London buses which read “Nice People Take Drugs”. It was intended to start a frank and open debate about drug use and the law.

While no complaints were recorded, advertising agency CBS Outdoor withdrew the ads following concerns from one of the bus companies involved and guidance, but not instruction, from the Committee of Advertising Practice that the message could be misinterpreted and cause offence.

Though the campaign has been cancelled, the charity itself is in no doubt about the power of this particular advertising method.

“Any bus advert seems to be the best value in terms of the kind of coverage you get,” said Claudia Rubin, Head of Policy and Communications.

“The Tube is so expensive to get adverts at just one station. And you tend to get the same people who see the same ads.

“With buses you get a much broader spectrum of people it would be exposed to.”

Slogans and appeals adorning the sides of buses are almost as old as the vehicle itself.

But the watershed moment for these mobile billboards came in October 2008 when comedian Arianne Sherine, with the backing of the British Humanist Association (BHA) and atheist-in-chief Richard Dawkins, created the Atheist Bus Campaign.

The ads – bearing the legend: “There is probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” – at once proved a rallying call for non-believers and believers alike to stimulate a public discussion of the issue.

For BHA chief executive Hanne Stinson starting the campaign was pragmatic but the extraordinary impact of the adverts soon became apparent.

“It was actually a very practical reason: our bus ads were a direct response to a series of Christian adverts that appeared on London buses,” she said.

At least one bus driver refused to drive a bus carrying the Atheist ad and although Ms Stinson describes this as ‘worrying’, she admits it helped the BHA’s cause.

“Of course that did us a world of good because we got far more hits on our website.”

Paul Woolley, director of Christian think tank Theos, donated £50 to the campaign. He said at the time: “We think that the campaign is a great way to get people thinking about God. The posters will encourage people to consider the most important question we will ever face in our lives.”

But as much as the campaign contributed to the public debate, the fact three Christian groups then produced their own ads has convinced Ms Stinson that the medium has its limits.

“We probably won’t want to use bus adverts again because we don’t want to get in to a game of tit-for-tat,” she confirmed.

Release admits the campaign’s power but stresses that financial considerations had their part to play.

“I can’t pretend we were influenced by the success of the Atheist campaign but we were also influenced in terms of cost effectiveness,” Ms Rubin added.

“If you typed ‘Nice People Take Drugs’ into Google before the campaign you got four hits. Now it’s 35,000.”

Mental health campaign Time To Change don’t regularly use bus adverts but won the use of some in a competition run by CBS Outdoor. Communications Officer Kate Stringer says a lot of influential people contacted them to say they’d noticed the campaign.

She said. “They’re a good way of getting notice by opinion-formers and people you want to see them.

“Certainly in central London they’re a good way, perhaps even better than the Tube, of getting noticed by opinion-formers and the kind of people you’d like to see your advertisements.

“They’re the people we’re trying to engage with and raise awareness, getting to those key influential people.”

Following the ABC, international versions followed across Europe and a number of churches struck back. The public debate has died down, now more likely to take place in the specialist press and debating rooms in universities than in the daily papers.

Even so, it’s hard not to wonder what Thatcher would think of the current crop of bus adverts and the repercussions on wider society.

With every year that goes by, her influence wanes as those around in her heyday grow old and retire. But the importance of bus advertising is, it seems, here to stay.


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