The Ads Have It (British train and bus TV adverts)

Things are finally beginning to look up for public transport adverts on British screens. Well, for trains at least.

Last week saw the debut of Virgin Trains’ latest advert, and I rather like it. Having added the London-Edinburgh inter-city East Coast franchise to its London-Glasgow inter-city West Coast operation, Virgin Trains is promoting both lines at once with Be Bound for Glory, by Krow:

[If there’s no video above, you might be reading a text-only version of this article, in which case head for the web version, here.]

The best on-screen adverts are effectively tiny films, artistic endeavours carefully crafted to sell not just a product, but an entire lifestyle. Car companies have been doing this for years, with beautiful films persuading you either to buy their product, or reassure you that you made the right choice last time. That (for instance) you are a Jaguar owner, you own the road, you rule the world, that all others are overawed by your position at the apex of the car-driving hierarchy. That’s what Spark 44‘s 2014 Rendezvous advert for the new F-Type sums up brilliantly and with enormous style and panache:

When it comes to public transport, the approach is necessarily slightly different. The vast majority of users, or potential users, aren’t particularly bothered about the model of bus or train on which they are travelling. We can choose different cars in which to travel along the road network, but on most public transport routes we have much less choice about which type of bus or train we catch. The choice is really between public transport or car travel. Trains and buses aren’t usually something to be used for their own sake, but as a means to an end. Every time I see a bus or train timetable with a photo of a bus or train on the front (unless it’s a really really nice one that promotes a lifestyle in the way that cars do) I die a little inside. When, after all, was the last time you saw a holiday company put a photo of the interior of its charter aircraft on the front of their brochure?

One of the things I particularly like about Be Bound for Glory is that trains barely feature in it all. The advert is all about a reason why you might travel by train, not about train travel itself.

For the longest time, public transport operators in Britain rarely seemed confident enough to advertise on screen, and when they did so, those adverts often used humour self-deprecatingly, getting the excuses in early, effectively apologising for taking up your time telling you about public transport. That can’t be right. Public transport isn’t helping itself when it treats its product as so bad it can’t be taken seriously.

British Rail used to run a lot of TV adverts, often with the defeatist “We’re Getting There” tagline, and also around the idea of the “Age of the Train”, which majored on, well, the trains. Unfortunately for posterity, they were also fronted by now-disgraced celebrity Jimmy Saville. Sectorisation saw the individual business sectors producing their own adverts. Saatchi & Saatchi created “Relax” for InterCity in 1988, which was much appreciated for its artistic direction, but unfortunately failed the reality test, leading to complaints that it bore little resemblance to the actual experience of long distance train travel at the time (read more on communication industry magazine Creative’s website here).

Meanwhile, in the commuter market, you could cringe at the apologetic tone of this 1991 effort from Network SouthEast (I can remember this one and it’s not just hindsight, it was naff at the time):

Privatisation of British Rail from 1994 saw most of the new, smaller, franchised train operators give up even trying. Bonus points should be awarded to Virgin Trains for continuing to make the effort. An early series took the tagline “Business brains take Virgin Trains” and centred on a hapless executive played by Rik Mayall, who refused to take Virgin Trains in favour of his car, getting into a series of misadventures along the way. So it was that he once ended up at a low-rent roadside restaurant, demanding a “pain au chocolat and a skinny cappu” to a contemptuous response, but gifting a lasting catchphrase to the offices of the transport magazine where I worked, every time we wanted to get coffee. Sadly, I can’t find a copy of it online, but leave a comment if you can find a link to it.

Virgin Trains has been a consistent on-screen advertiser, the only train operator to make such a sustained effort. But its Big Train series of TV spots from the mid-2000s were cartoon-y and self-consciously humorous, with twee sound effects. The company still didn’t seem quite brave enough to suggest its product should be taken seriously on its own merits.

Even when train operators other than Virgin dipped their toes back into the waters of television advertising, they did so by poking fun at themselves. One such example was Southern’s ‘Go Loco Go Southern’ campaigns by VCCP of the late 2000s, which looked like this:

I know for a fact (because I asked Southern’s PR department at the time) that this campaign worked well in attracting extra patronage and revenue to Southern. But something about the comedy Mexican wrestler Loco Toledo was slightly depressing. It appeared that the only way to advertise train travel on screen was to make a big joke of it all, which hardly helped the rail industry’s wider public perception, especially amongst non-users, whatever it might have done for the individual train operators involved. This was an industry that still didn’t have the courage in its product to treat it seriously.

It’s an unfortunate fact that by the late 2000s, the adverts which treated train travel most seriously as a product, making it aspirational and even covetable were, in fact, nothing to do with train operators at all. Three examples demonstrate not only the art of commercial filmmaking at its best, but also the life-affirming impact that rail travel can have on screen.

It’s important to remember at this point that I view practically everything through the prism of transport; it’s what happens after you study for a transport degree. So right up until the caption at the end, I assumed that the following 2009 advert (Fantastic Journey by RKCR Y&R) was for the sheer, utter brilliance of train travel, and the amazing variety of experiences it could transport you to:

I saw it in the cinema, and it completely blew my mind for 55 seconds, before horribly disappointing me for the remaining five. It was, in the end, not my longed-for serious advert for train travel but instead one for Virgin Media, rather than Virgin Trains. Another crushing disappointment came in the same year with this advert, which wonderfully captured the amazing, uplifting, and unexpected adventures you might have if you travelled by train. You never know what could happen to make you smile (and I defy you not to as you watch it) when you pitch up at a railway station:

The only downside of this commercial extolling the joy of train travel is that it’s actually an advert for T-Mobile. I should have realised creative agency Saatchi & Saatchi would have had enough of railways after Relax. It all happened for real, by the way. There was no trickery involved, just 350 dancers and a lot of forward planning. Thinkbox, the marketing body for commercial TV, explains all here.

Last of the three, and quite the most glamorous advert for international train travel ever made, must be this one from 2011. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (he of Amélie), he once again teamed up with Amélie star Audrey Tautou to create a sensational reminder of just why overnight train travel is the most adventurous and romantic way of getting anywhere of any distance.

The scenery in Train de Nuit is amazing, the atmosphere is sultry, Billie Holiday sings seductively, Tautou is luminously beautiful throughout. I swear, I was convinced it was an advert for Voyages-SNCF or something similar, and was all set to hit the internet to book a sleeper train to, well, just about any place…until I realised it was an advert for perfume Chanel No. 5.

On the one hand, these films demonstrate just how attractive train travel can appear. On the other hand, it was profoundly depressing to realise that virtually no British train operator was trying to do anything similar with one of their own adverts.

As usual, Virgin Trains was the exception that proved the rule, and had been plugging away at TV advertising. By 2009 it had finally reached a point where it showed much more self-confidence with RKCR/Y&R’s technically astounding Return of the Trains, which transplanted famous vintage film clips into a Pendolino train journey:

It took until 2013 for a train operator other than Virgin to realise that it didn’t have to make fun of its product in order to sell its product. East Coast Trains premiered its simple but effective Feel at Home with East Coast advert, by Beattie McGuinness Bungay. There’s a distant relationship with Virgin Media’s Fantastic Journey here. As the lead walks through various scenarios – a business meeting, a family get together, picking up some coffee, two students in luurve (ahhh) – you realise that these could all take place on a train, and in fact are taking place on a train.

Virgin Trains’ Be Bound for Glory picks up the baton for train adverts which take their product seriously. Yes, the advert is funny in typically Virgin irreverent style (see also Virgin Atlantic’s Your airline’s either got it or it hasn’t by RKCR/Y&R; I still can’t decide whether I’m impressed or vaguely appalled), but it’s funny about a situation most of us can relate to – meeting the in-laws for the first time. It’s not treating train travel itself as inherently amusing. Make no mistake – this is a very serious advert taking train travel very seriously. By showing where trains can take you, rather than telling you about train travel itself, it plays beyond existing train users, and tells non-train users that trains are a perfectly sensible alternative to car travel. Its subject is a young man, which plays well to a key demographic, young people who can be persuaded to travel by train with a bit of effort, especially given the astronomical insurance premia such drivers attract.

It’s only a shame that there are still so few train operators willing to do anything similar.

And before you think I’ve forgotten bus travel, don’t worry. I haven’t. But I’m pretty sure that bus operators in Britain have forgotten television advertising. If train operators have seemed reluctant to pursue on-screen advertising, bus operators have been all but phobic. I can’t remember the last time I saw a bus company advertising on television. Yet I’m pretty sure that bus users, and (perhaps more importantly) potential bus users, do in fact watch the television.

Here though is that rare beast, a British television bus advert, 2011’s Get on Board with First by Frame. With cartoon flowers. And a singing bus driver. And craaaaaaazy passengers.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this presented city buses as an attractive alternative to car travel, or whether it added to the general look-we-know-trying-to-persuade-you-public-transport-is-attractive-is-ridiculous-so-let’s-make-fun-of-ourselves attitude the industry often projects on screen. I don’t blame the creative agency, by the way. They’ll satisfy their client’s wishes, but if the client doesn’t really believe in the inherent quality of its product, it’s not surprising that creative agencies end up making apologetic adverts that send themselves up.

It’s actually a worldwide problem. Here’s an advert from this year by Edmonton Transit System of Canada. Making fun of the bus travel experience is once again the order of the day as ETS suggests its buses are cool, in a heavily ironic way. Heaven forbid that it might do so seriously.

ETS’s claimed on-bus “personal climate control” is illustrated by a passenger opening a hopper window, which unfortunately just draws attention to the fact that, world over, this is still the standard ventilation system fitted to most buses. It doesn’t have to be; air-conditioned buses do exist, it’s just that for what I assume are essentially cost reasons, most bus operators think it is acceptable for one numpty to open their hopper window on a rainy day and make everyone else on the bus cold and wet.

It’s a faithful adaptation of Danish operator Midttrafik’s original:

…which has recently gained its own sequel, the difference here being that when Midttrafik refers to comfortable seats on its buses, they actually look comfortable, rather than ETS’s rock hard-looking versions.

The bus industry has an even worse on-screen image problem than train operators ever did, as you can see in a recent Citroen advert for its C1 car. After missing a bus (stoopid buses, eh?) the lead character drives a C1 off a bus stop poster, which as so often is obscuring the view of oncoming buses. We are exhorted to “love our city more” with a C1, i.e. more than in a bus.

Nevertheless, it is possible to conceive of a bus advert that treats bus travel seriously. Much as T-Mobile, Virgin Media and Chanel accidentally created some of the best train travel adverts, so a recent commercial by Vodafone could almost be a brilliant advert for bus travel. Here’s Vodafone advertising the joys of 4G streaming of TV on your mobile, on a bus, in this year’s A Happy Bus Journey by Grey London. But what a bus:

Vodafone seems to have the same mental image of bus travel as many non-bus users do, which is of ancient buses with horrible bench seats. Yet imagine the same advert, with a modern bus featuring free wi-fi and a high quality interior (yes, I know there are still too few, but indulge me), and for bus travel instead of mobile phones. It’s an enticing prospect.

So I will end on a question. If non-transport companies can make such good adverts for public transport, and if there are a few flashes of brilliance from actual train operators, why aren’t there more good adverts that treat public transport as a serious option from transport operators themselves?

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