Green solutions for London

Only the likes of Tesco Metro can afford expensive tube campaigns, your local deli suffers and Londo

If you have been on the Victoria Line going south from Euston station lately, you might have noticed the latest innovation in tube entertainment across the platform.

I regularly use this platform on my way from Kentish Town to my job in South Kensington and, a couple of weeks ago, I spotted them: three bright billboard adverts moving about on the other side of the tunnel. My first thought (and the one I’ve had every time I’ve used the platform since) was along the lines of “oh, horrific, look away, look away!” but most of my fellow commuters seem to have been of the “hmm, that’s quite impressive” school instead.

Keeping an eye on us all every day, no doubt marking me down in the ‘severe negative reaction’ column, were various people with clipboards, so this was clearly some sort of trial taking place. Despite my disgust, the ads have persisted (admittedly only showing promotions for the tube, various charities and the holders of the tube advert monopoly, CBS Outdoor) so I thought I’d investigate what was going on.

A quick visit to the CBS website revealed I was witnessing the latest enhancement to the ‘travel experience’ of tube passengers and was an unwitting part of a four-week trial for their new Cross Track Projection (XTP for short) digital advertising technology. Just when I thought my journey into work couldn’t pack in one more compelling sales message, I’m to have this barrage ‘enhanced’ by moving images – oh joy.

As if this wasn’t disturbing enough, a bit of clicking around led me to the extremely sinister London Commuter website, where CBS have been conducting and promoting an extensive survey of advertising and travelling in London. It turns out that each of us spends more than 13 hours every month involuntarily reading adverts placed strategically on our public transport infrastructure.

Even more unsettling, CBS calls this ‘Captive Message Time’ and are looking for ways to provide better value to their clients with distracting moving digital ‘experiences’ in as many places as possible: the XTP systems will soon be appearing on 24 stations across the network. I also discovered they are putting together a targeting system called ‘GMap’ which is busy working out exactly which of us is looking at which adverts when, and no doubt what ‘messages’ we are most vulnerable to on each occasion.

At this point, I was sorely tempted to throw down my mouse and draw up a pledge in my own blood to stamp all this out. But, as Green candidate for Mayor of London, I have to consider the other factors at play here. Advertising revenue goes towards making it possible to pay for things like reduced fares and service improvements. And there is certainly something to be said for this kind of judicious use of corporate cash, especially as the advertisers don’t actually get to mess up the signals or demand extra subsidies, unlike PPP pirates Metronet.

Moreover, it seems the CBS research suggests most commuters actually like the fact we have adverts to look at while we wend our way to work and wait for interminable ‘London Transport minutes’ to pass by on the platform indicators (these are similar to those ‘downloading file’ Microsoft minutes in that they never correspond to units of actual time). The figures in the survey are quite conclusive: while 74% of us would rather there were no adverts at all on the TV, 87% of us prefer the tube with advertising and 73% even like those scary anti-benefit claimant adverts on buses.

So, given that banning adverts would also mean kissing goodbye to tens of millions in cash, which would have to be made up some other way, even a Green Mayor would have to swallow the temptation to shoo the advertisers away and fill the space with art.

A better plan would be actually to increase the amount of advertising space on the tube, but reduce the cost of the new spaces; preserving revenue but making more of the space affordable to smaller, locally based businesses – exactly the kind of businesses Greens want to see flourish. With minimum space policies imposed and digital adverts taking over, only the likes of Tesco Metro can afford expensive tube campaigns, so your local deli suffers and London’s economy as a whole is pushed further into dependence on large corporations and the City – not healthy for any of us.

A more self-reliant London means stronger local economies, so smaller businesses need access to ‘Captive Message Time’ too, and that’s what this would help to achieve.

The second part of the plan would be to bring in a more ethical advertising policy for London’s transport system. Green businesses are another sector we want to help succeed, and clearing out the dodgier end of the advertising spectrum (such as gas-guzzling 4x4s, for example) would help companies wanting to promote their deals for solar panels for your roof, or their local food delivery scheme, to gain entry to commuter minds as well.

So, local and green businesses would get a leg up; books, films, plays, UK holidays and local attractions could all stay; but those adverts for far-flung mini-breaks would have to go.

But the big question is will the people who hate TV adverts but love transport posters take to moving adverts on the tube? For the answer, I guess we will have to wait and see the results of CBS’s experiment at Euston. I do hope my morning scowling shows up in their reports.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Byron burgers and bacon sandwiches: can any politician get away with eating on camera?

Memo to aspirant world leaders: eating in public is a political minefield.

Miliband’s sandwich. Cameron’s hot dog. Osborne’s burger. The other Miliband’s banana. As well as excellent names for up-and-coming indie bands, these are just a few examples of now infamous food faux pas committed by British politicians.

During his entire mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan refused to eat anything in public. When journalist Simon Hattenstone met him in his local curry house for the Guardian, the now-mayor didn’t eat a single bite despite “dish after dish” arriving at the table. Who can blame him? Though Ed Miliband had been pictured blunderingly eating a bacon sandwich an entire year earlier, the national furore around the incident had not yet died down. “He can make me look Clooneyesque or make me look like Ed eating a bacon sandwich,” Khan said of the photographer at the time.

Miliband’s bacon sandwich is now so infamous that I need offer no explanation for the event other than those words. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the photograph of Ed, lips curled and eyes rolling, as he tucks into that fateful sarnie. Yet politicians frequently bite off more than they can chew – why did Ed’s mishap inspire multiple headlines and an entire front page of The Sun?

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“The momentum got behind the bacon sandwich story because he was awkward, it showed him in a light which was true - he was an awkward candidate in that election,” says Paul Baines, a professor of political marketing at Cranfield University. “He didn’t come across right.”

The photograph of Miliband fit neatly within a pre-existing image of the politician – that he was bumbling, incompetent, and unable to take control. Similarly, when David Cameron was pictured eating a hot dog with a knife and fork months later, the story reinforced popular notions of him as a posh, out-of-touch, champagne-swilling old Etonian. Though Oxford-educated, two-kitchen Miliband is nearly as privileged as Cameron, and Brexit-inducing Dave equally as incompetent as Ed, the pictures would not gain the same popularity in reverse. There are many, many less-than-flattering pictures of Cameron eating, but they didn’t fit into a workable narrative.

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No one, for example, focused on the price of Ed’s sandwich. Purchased at New Covenant Garden Market, it was undoubtedly more expensive than Greggs’ £1.75 bacon roll – but no one cared. When George Osborne was pictured eating an £8 Byron burger whilst cutting £11.5 million from the British budget, however, the picture spoke to many. The then-chancellor was forced to explain that “McDonalds doesn't deliver”, although, as it turned out, Byron didn’t either.

“The idea was to try and display him in a good light – here's a guy eating a burger just like everyone else. The only problem was it was a posh burger and of course he didn't look like everyone else because he was spending ten quid on a burger,” explains Baines.

But Dave, Ed, and George are just the latest in a long, long line of politicians who have been mocked for their eating habits. Across the ocean, Donald Trump has been lambasted for liking his steak well done, while in 1976, Gerald Ford was mocked after biting into the inedible corn husk of a tamale. Why then, do politicians not copy Khan, and avoid being pictured around food altogether?

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“Food connects everybody, food is essentially a connection to culture and the 'every person',” explains Baines. “[Nigel] Farage's appearance in the pub has definitely had a positive impact on how he's perceived by a big chunk of the working class electorate which is an important, sizeable group.” Though Cameron, too, has been pictured with pints, his undeniably weird grasp on the glass make the pictures seem inauthentic, compared to Farage whose pints are clearly at home in his hands. In America, Joe Biden managed to capture the same authenticity with an ice-cream cone.

“I think when it comes across badly is when it comes across as inauthentic,” says Baines. “If I were advising, I certainly wouldn't advise Theresa May to be seen in the pub having a pint, that would not shine with her particular character or style. But could Tim Farron come across better in that way? Possibly but it does have to be authentic.”

Food, then, can instantly make a politician seem in or out of touch. This is especially true when food connects to national identity. Tony Blair, for example, publicly claimed his favourite dish was fish and chips despite earlier saying it was fettuccine with olive oil, sundried tomatoes and capers. In the 1980s, Lord Mandelson allegedly mistook mushy peas for guacamole, insulting us all. In the States, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician who hasn’t been pictured with a hot dog, and there are entire articles dedicated to US politicians who eat pizza with a knife and fork. Again, the food fits a narrative – politicians out of touch with the common person.  

Then again, sometimes, just sometimes, no narrative is needed. We’d advise any candidate who seriously wants a shot in the 2017 General Election to not, under any circumstances, be pictured casually feeding a Solero to an unidentified young woman. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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