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How much solicitation in the TTC is too much?

Credit-card-peddling reps raise questions about sanctity of public space

By Naomi Carniol

TTC riders won’t bristle at an overhead advertisement, but salespeople in a subway station chatting them up about a credit card as they rush to catch trains or buses might rankle.

Twice recently at Dufferin subway station, Bank of Montreal salespeople were spotted on the same level as the fare booth, just outside the turnstiles, promoting a credit card. Many commuters pouring in and out of the busy station had to pass by the salespeople.

It’s not the first time marketing teams have been allowed inside subway stations to promote products. There have been sample promotions for the film Alice in Wonderland and, at Spadina station, commuters exited a packed streetcar to discover free chocolate bars. There have been 12 freebie campaigns thus far this year, and more are scheduled.

But salespeople promoting a credit card doesn’t have the same sweet appeal. While the Toronto Transit Commission insists that there is no difference, public-space advocates think otherwise. They say BMO’s promotion - and any other like it - is pushing the envelope, a new kind of sell-off of public space. They worry it’s an ominous sign of things coming down the line for the cash-strapped transit system.

The TTC does not manage the advertising and marketing inside of its vehicles and stations. Instead, advertisers deal directly with the media company CBS Outdoor, and the TTC reserves the right to refuse to run an ad or stop a promotion. Over the TTC’s seven-year contract with CBS Outdoor, which ends Dec. 31, 2011, the TTC will earn a total of $92.3 million.

TTC spokesperson Danny Nicholson says BMO’s promotion has occurred on and off over the last year and a half. It’s considered “sampling,” which is allowed, according to the contract the TTC has with CBS Outdoor, Mr. Nicholson says.

That contract spells out the rules for advertising on the TTC. And it states that sampling can include role-playing, displaying and/or giving out products and/or printed material as well as having “[i]nteractive displays, but shall not include any open solicitation of TTC commuters.”

At Dufferin station, BMO salespeople were not handing out credit cards. And they weren’t dressed up as giant credit cards enacting some kind of role-play. Instead, the interaction was very straightforward. The passengers who gave BMO officials their contact information received pamphlets. Those who ignored the BMO did not get pamphlets.

Asked how that did not qualify as “open solicitation,” all three parties punted. TTC referred the question to CBS Outdoor, which did not respond to interview requests. BMO declined an interview request.

In an e-mailed statement, BMO spokesperson Ralph Marranca wrote, “We follow very strict guidelines provided by the TTC. … Those guidelines include space limitations that ensure we are not obtrusive and do not block passenger traffic.”

He added that BMO has not received complaints about their activities.

From a marketing perspective, BMO’s promotion makes sense, says Eileen Fischer, a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business. “If this is an unexpected or unusual form of communication, then you are likely to get people’s attention more readily than if it’s something they routinely expect like … a poster on a wall.”

Jonathan Goldsbie, a spokesperson for the non-profit Toronto Public Space Committee, says having bank salespeople in subway stations “seems to test the limits of what is allowed.” Even if the contract permits it, the promotion still amounts to a sell-off of public space and intrudes into riders’ experiences on the TTC, he says. “It’s advertising you can’t turn off. You can’t flip the channel. You can’t close the magazine.”

But this kind of borderline, underground economy might not help to repair TTC’s image, which has had an embarrassing year in the customer-service area.

If the TTC wants to let salespeople in subway stations, the TTC “should go out and publicly get feedback from its riders about whether they appreciate that,” says Matthew Blackett, who sits on the TTC’s blue-ribbon customer-service advisory panel. “What I don’t understand is why the TTC lets them do it without actually talking to riders about it.”

Also the publisher of Spacing magazine, Mr. Blackett has a theory. Several years ago, TTC commuters reacted negatively when they learned of plans to install video ads in subway cars. The plans were scuttled thanks to negative public reaction. With salespeople in subway stations, “it’s in the best interest of the TTC and CBS Outdoor to make sure the public doesn’t know about this and it just kind of happens,” he says. “It’s totally unfair to the rider experience.”

Special to The Globe and Mail