Why Metro Transit refuses to run a public health message

Aug 1, 2011

A major ad campaign launches this week to promote healthy living, with advertisements featured on Seattle-area television, radio and billboards. Just about the only place you won’t find the ads is on Metro buses.

The transit agency says the advertisements violate its new policy regarding public service announcements. The policy, adopted April 8th, prohibits ads that express a viewpoint on “matters of public debate about economic, political, religious or social issues.”

It was adopted in the wake of a huge controversy last December, when pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups faced off over advertisements on the sides of buses. King County, which operates Metro, blocked both groups’ messages and eventually came up with its new policy for political and non-profit messages.

"Stores are full of tobacco ..."

Ironically, this month’s ad campaign is orchestrated by another branch of King County government, the public health department.

Using the slogan, “Let’s Do This King County,” the ads depict a fictitious 11-year-old girl named Mia, with various thought bubbles. One says, “Stores are full of tobacco. Why can’t they be full of fruit?” Another asks why stores don’t stock milk instead of sugary drinks.

Under Metro’s policy, these are both too provocative. Promoting milk, for example, may not be a matter of public debate, says Linda Thielke, Metro Transit spokeperson:

“But it was also talking about what store owners should stock in their stores, and that’s an issue that there has been some debate about.”

An $800,000 campaign

Public Health Seattle & King County is not complaining. Spokesman James Apa says they’ve found plenty of other venues for their $800,000 healthy living campaign. And, while it’s not nearly as edgy as some public health campaigns in other cities, targeting tobacco, sex or drugs, Apa says the message is meant to be slightly provocative:

“We discussed wanting to have a campaign that engaged people … in changing the health of the community. So, this is an action oriented campaign.”

The messages direct people to a website, where they’re encouraged to challenge their local schools, merchants, and landlords to adopt healthier policies, around issues of smoking, diet and exercise.

Case-by-case review

The bigger challenge, for any group wanting to spread a message via Metro buses, is figuring out in advance if they’re provoking “public debate.” Metro's ad agent Titan Outdoor reviews each proposal on a case-by-case basis, sending the controversial ones back to Metro.

So, if you’d like to propose a public service announcement, you have to submit a final version of your ad before Metro will look at it – which can be expensive and time-consuming, especially if the answer ends up being “no.”

Thielke says every aspect of an ad must be considered, including what sort of website it links to and how the photos look, so it’s impossible to give advice in advance.