Photo by David Topping/Torontoist.
You know what’s hilarious? Ads that make fun of suicide. Why, they’re right up there with the ones that make light of rape.
You know what else is hilarious? When a company makes an ass out of the government agency from which it would one day like a contract.
Oh, Astral Media.
Image courtesy of Astral Media Radio.
Late on Sunday night, reader Michael Schwandt sent us a picture of the bus shelter at the southwest corner of Harbord and Huron, saying, “I recently noticed some ads in the TTC system that I thought were in really poor taste. At first, I thought that it might be a bit curmudgeonly for me to be bothered by this joke, but walking by this every day it has progressively irked me. Given the number of people who attempt and complete suicides in the subway tracks, and given the lack of response to this by the TTC, carrying this ad seems spectacularly insensitive to the issue of subway suicides generally, and particularly to the families of people who have died in this way (to say nothing of others affected by suicide).”
Now here’s the thing: the TTC has only a tenuous connection with the transit shelters erected at its stops, and zero connection to the advertising displayed thereon. Bus and streetcar shelters, and the advertising spaces on them, are—like the rest of the elements in the Coordinated Street Furniture Program—maintained by billboard company Astral Media Outdoor under the (ostensible) supervision of the City’s Transportation Services department. Of course, 99.9% of people don’t know that shelters are outside of the TTC’s jurisdiction, making this ad campaign reflect incredibly badly on the transit agency.
Torontoist forwarded Schwandt’s photo on to TTC Chair Adam Giambrone and his executive assistant, Kevin Beaulieu, for comment. They weren’t previously aware of the ads but promptly moved to have them pulled.
“These ads are in poor taste,” Giambrone told us, “and I don’t think most Torontonians would find them all that funny. The surface transit shelters are not owned or maintained by the TTC, but I will be asking the City’s Transportation department to work with their ad vendor to review and remove them.”
As per its contract with the City [PDF], Astral is supposed to “review all advertising prior to its installation on the [street furniture] to identify any advertising,” which, among other things, is not “in accordance with good taste.” This either happened, and Astral saw nothing wrong with the ad, or it didn’t happen, and Astral was negligent with regard to its responsibilities. Thankfully, however, section 10.5 of the contract compels Astral to honour requests from the City to “remove any prohibited or offensive advertising” at their own expense. (The City, for example, could have ordered those “violent” Killzone ads to come down even if Sony hadn’t voluntarily terminated the campaign before its end date. York Region Transit, on the other hand, did issue such an order regarding the Killzone promos on their own shelters.)
Giambrone also “confirmed that the ads do not appear on TTC property, such as the subway.” Although this could just mean that CBS Outdoor (which handles advertising on vehicles and in stations) had the good sense to reject the ads as inappropriate, or that transit advertising wasn’t contemplated for this campaign, it’s most likely that Virgin Radio—being an Astral Media company—is getting the space on the shelters for free (or at least at a drastically reduced rate). You see, just as CBS fills the TTC with several simultaneous PSA campaigns when they’re unable to sell space to advertisers, Astral tends to adorn their shelters and kiosks with commercials for other Astral companies (like HBO Canada and Virgin Radio) or other space-filling gimmicks. Hence, in this case, Astral Media is not just responsible for the medium but also for the message itself.
We hope the TTC keeps this in mind if Astral puts in a bid for their next ad contract, which will be tendered two years from now.
Photo of a different ad in the campaign, discovered at College and Dufferin, taken by Jerad Gallinger/Torontoist.
The other big question was, where was the photograph in the ad taken? Schwandt’s original pic wasn’t terribly clear, and the lack of a yellow safety strip along the platform seemed to rule out the TTC. So we sent along the snap to the all-knowing Steve Munro, who immediately pegged the location: “A giveaway in the photo is the fact that the third rail is under the platform overhang. Therefore what we are looking at is on the ‘off side’ from a regular passenger platform. My money’s on the Yonge Station on the Sheppard line but I would have to go and look to be sure. The radio is on the unused and unfinished centre platform.
“And, yes,” he added, “the ad is in very poor taste.”
When we paid our own visit to the shelter later that night, we had no doubt that it was Sheppard-Yonge station. We could even make out that the subway car in the background is #5232 and that there are chalk markings on the section of track in the foreground, “HW53 12128 8-12-99” (the last part of which is most likely the date the track was laid down). And the next morning we heard back from a representative of Astral Media Radio, who confirmed that “It was shot in an empty TTC station.” So the TTC must have supervised the shoot, meaning that they issued a permit to engage in commercial photography.
If this had been a movie or TV-commercial production, the TTC would have had to vet the script or storyboard before granting permission. “Please be aware,” the guidelines specifically note, “that the TTC will not approve any scripts that depict…suicide or attempted suicide by train or pushing to track level.” But because this was just still photography, the only information that needed to be supplied as to content was a “description of shots.” And after looking into it, Beaulieu got back to us that “that TTC staff did receive and accommodate a request to take photos of ‘various sized radios on TTC platforms.'” Well then. That is a technically accurate description…and there was no way the TTC could have known what was up. Still, whoever produced the ad was surely aware that any more elaborate outline would have resulted in their application being rejected.
Mocking genuine tragedies (even via anthropomorphized objects) for the sake of an ad is inherently tactless, but doing so in a way that makes the people you want to impress appear callous and indifferent is just shooting yourself, in the foot.