Have MetroCards Entered the Public Forum?

Bijan Rezvani |

This image is part of the advertising specs for MetroCard ad designs, available on the MTA website. Image courtesy of MTA.

In July the MTA announced that it will make the front of its iconic MetroCard available to advertisers, who can replace virtually all but the black, magnetic strip with their own messaging. The MTA has sold advertising space on the back of the card since the mid-1990s, and this announcement comes with a reduction of the purchase minimum. The MetroCard’s advertisement space will be managed in-house by the MTA, while most MTA ad spaces are managed through CBS Outdoor.

The MTA reports earnings of $116 million in advertising revenue for 2011, a sum that’s steadily grown over the past 15 years and is projected to reach $120 million in 2012. One of the drivers of this revenue rise is the continued effort to maximize advertising opportunities throughout the system. Ad revenue feeds back into the MTA budget and tempers the severity of fare increases, which are scheduled for 2013 and 2015.

Scott Mac Duffie, the president of By Design Media with over two decades of experience with outdoor transit media, says the MTA’s advertising efforts have progressed over the past decade. “They’ve become much more user-friendly with regard to the ad community, and they’ve gained a lot more experience with advertising franchises… they’re more open to new ideas than the used to be.”

This year passengers noticed S trains wrapped inside and out with New York Rangers promotions and other ads. Additional surfaces include digital moving images on sidewalk station entrances and ads on turnstiles and stairway steps, which join the ranks of more established offerings, such as bus exteriors, elevated billboards and subway interior car panels.

As to public reaction to a MetroCard altered by advertising, MTA passengers quoted in a New York Times article ranged from indifferent to considering it misguided or a stroke of fare-protecting ingenuity. The sale of these particular square inches to advertising opens speculation as to how new MetroCards might look. Will passengers soon access the system by pulling Dr. Zizmor, compensated spokesperson John Roland, or ads for Robert Ludlum novels by Eric van Lustbader out of their pockets? What type of content would work best in this space?

Mac Duffie thinks everyday items available at or near the point of purchase would work best. “The train cars are used on a regular basis, and it works best as a reminder for something people would buy on a regular basis, whether it be lottery tickets, candy, or toothpaste or something.”

The MTA rejected this message by the American Freedom Defense Initiative.

The question of MTA ad content made news on July 20 when Federal District Judge Paul A. Engelmayer ruled that the MTA was on the wrong side of the First Amendment when it rejected a controversial ad buy from the American Freedom Defense Initiative. Its ad reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel / Defeat Jihad.” Judge Engelmayer’s opinion (PDF) recognized that the “cash-strapped” MTA correctly assessed that the message was demeaning and therefore in violation of MTA guidelines, but that the policy against “demeaning” ads within specific categories (race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation) in the “designated public forum” of bus exteriors violates the political advocacy organization’s right to free speech. The MTA has 30 days to appeal and may consider amending its advertising guidelines, which could potentially produce a more legally sound maintenance of the ban.

Questions around this ruling point to the relevance of ad content and its effects in the “public forum,” but also to the qualitative differences between ad spaces. Does the controversial pro-Israel ad (pictured above) carry the same significance and offense on a bus exterior as it would in a passenger’s hand and pocket? Would the courts consider the MetroCard to be part of the “designated public forum” in the same sense as bus exteriors?

Jordan Seiler, the founder of a public space activism project called PublicAdCampaign, which is highly critical of advertising in outdoor spaces, sees no major qualitative distinction between the two spaces and their meaning for the public who interacts with them. Seiler questions the need for MTA advertisements (as well as most outdoor advertisements in general), in light of what he sees as advertising’s destructive effects upon the city’s social fabric.

“The constant justification for all this proliferation of advertising is that in some way it’s propping up our infrastructure. When you look into the numbers behind what they contribute to the MTA, it’s less than 1 percent of the MTA’s operating budget,” Selier said, suggesting that an increase in passenger fares would be a worthy trade-off for the elimination of the advertisements.

The MTA reports its 2012 operating budget at $12.5 billion with a projected positive balance of $47 million, which will feed into the demands of 2013. MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan described the 2012 budget as “about as fragile a budget as possible.”

Donovan also shared the following facts about the mechanics of the MTA’s advertising system:

Most MTA ads are managed through CBS Outdoor, and 95 percent of MTA subway ad buys are system-wide, meaning they are placed randomly. Most buys are for four-week intervals, and ad rotation is not a part of the buy.

A variety of advertisers — local businesses, government organizations, nonprofits, multinational corporations — choose to place their ads in the MTA system. The starting published rates are the same for all buyers.

“A local advertiser posted next to Budweiser may have purchased six ads to cover one station, whereas Bud may have purchased 600 ads to saturate the system. CBS Outdoor negotiates each advertising contract on a case-by-case basis,” Donovan explained.

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