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.