Metro PSAs Target Vendors, Make Other Missteps in Effort to Teach Transit Etiquette
The PSAs are meant to be light and fun, but instead double down on images that criminalize the behaviors of Metro's core ridership and present excessive punishment as kindness
“Finally, we get a brief and somewhat dark look at how Super Kind handles peddlers hawking their wares (in this case a knockoff of her own shtick), called ‘Supernice and Rude Boi.’”
So reads the AdWeek post celebrating Metro Los Angeles’ release of three new Public Service Announcements aimed at teaching transit etiquette. In the first series, released last October, “magical girl” heroine “Super Kind” battled her orange arch-nemesis, “Rude Dude,” by kindly throwing his pineapples out the door, nuking his bicycle, and confiscating (and eating) his food.
Now, she’s back to dance to death-pop and use a fire extinguisher on his face, quietly listen to Danny Trejo lecture him, and banish him from the planet for… trying to make a living?
“Somewhat dark” is certainly one way to put it.
The PSAs are meant to be fun and catchy ways to illustrate what compliance with Metro’s Customer Code of Conduct looks like. And, on one level they are fun and catchy.
But viewed within the context of Metro’s ridership – the core of which is comprised of low- and very low-income riders of color – the light-hearted scenarios take on an entirely different meaning and the extent to which members of that constituency are portrayed as being likely to contribute to an undesirable experience on Metro becomes startlingly clear.
Chief among those singled out for ostracization are the vendors.
Ubiquitous on the Blue Line, many have turned vending into an art form. Personable, creative, business-savvy, resilient, and tireless, they have refused to allow employers’ unwillingness to take a chance on young black and brown men from South Central to determine their fate. They know the rhythms of the trains and the people who ride them better than most of Metro’s paid employees. And their ability to anticipate their customers’ every need helps bring levity and build a sense of community in an area of L.A. that public agencies historically worked to isolate, undermine, and repress in every conceivable way.
But instead of looking to the vendors as potential ambassadors or allies in creating a safer and more welcoming transit system for all, the new PSA has turned them into public enemy number one. Or, as AdWeek, taking its cue from the PSAs’ tone, labeled them and other offenders: “jerks.”
In the PSA Metro says is meant to discourage people from buying items from vendors, Super Kind kindly ignores the people buying from a vendor.
Instead, she stands in front of a friendly furry monster, enraged.
It is unclear whether she is more horrified that Rude Dude is selling videos of her doppelganger doing a strange dance or that he is vending on the train.
Her silence suggests it doesn’t matter – she just wants him gone.
This form of kindness scares Rude Dude enough that he tosses both his livelihood and his earnings for the day into the air and flees down the aisle.
He doesn’t get far, however, before he is halted in his tracks by Super Kind.
Once again, she kindly asks no questions.
Instead, she exiles him…
…to another planet.
She then kindly disappears, abandoning him there, far from any transit hub, with no means to survive and no way to get back home.
Disoriented, he looks around.
He turns to see a handful of other Rude Dudes, including some who have apparently been languishing there in semi-solitary confinement since committing quality of life infractions in last October’s round of PSAs.
“Wait, did they just deport the vendor?” Joel García commented, incredulous, on a Facebook post in which mobility advocate Erick Huerta took the ad to task.
Deportation, incarceration, exclusion, permanent exile, loss of a livelihood – the PSA seemed to suggest any or all of these outcomes would be justifiable punishments to visit upon someone who was just trying to get by and bring passengers a little joy in the process.
It is striking that no one at Metro saw any of the very obvious parallels the story line evoked or, in that vein, raised any questions about how insanely disproportionate the punishment was to the crime before green lighting it.
And it is made all the more striking by the fact that John Gordon, Metro’s Director of Social Media Marketing, and I had had a twitter exchange regarding the apparent criminalization of Metro’s core ridership when his team released the first round of Super Kind PSAs last year.
Specifically, I had been troubled by the video in which Rude Dude is carrying a box of googly-eyed pineapples that he sets on the seat next to him.
For doing so, he is promptly labeled a “Metro Menace.”
Which… fair enough. Nobody supports seat-hogging behavior.
But, again, placed in the context of Metro’s ridership, it takes on a different meaning.
Where better-off riders of choice might opt to drive on a day they are overly laden down or have to take their kids somewhere, riders of necessity have no other choice but to board with small children, groceries, items to recycle, laundry, heavy book bags or school projects, suitcases, shopping bags, items they are taking to vend elsewhere, or whatever else it is they have to transport.
And yet the “menace,” we are to understand, is someone who could be a stand-in for just such a rider of necessity.
It is clearly not Super Kind, who is kindly perched in the aisle seat of her row, absorbed in the loud noises her phone is making and effectively preventing people from being able to sit next to her.
Super Kind’s tossing his pineapples out into the street evoked distressing images of food vendors’ goods being confiscated and destroyed, I had tweeted to Metro at the time.
The obliteration of Rude Dude’s bike for blocking the aisle on a train car in which there was no designated place he could move his bike to was similarly troubling.
Many riders of necessity rely on their bikes for transportation. And because they often have bags tied to their bikes or have larger cruiser bikes, they can have a hard time moving to designated spaces (which are sometimes located in the aisle connecting two train cars) or even seeing which cars have easily accessible designated bike spaces from the platform. Especially during peak hours.
“Folks do have to board Metro with their goods, their bikes, etc.,” I had continued in my twitter thread to Metro, “but you’re making their bikes disappear and tossing their fruit out the door.
Your ideal rider appears to be someone not burdened down by their goods or bikes. But that’s not reflective of who your core ridership is.”
Upon spotting the tweets, Gordon replied, “He’s a giant pink monster with a box of googley-eyed pineapples that runs afoul of a magical girl superhero in a fantasy music video but okay.”
The PSAs aren’t particularly deep – I wasn’t failing to grasp their original intent.
Rather, the problem was that Gordon appeared to be unwilling or unable to contemplate how the “fantasy” portrayed might unintentionally malign the very real struggles of very real people, privilege the aspirations of riders of choice over the realities and needs of riders of necessity, and mimic the very real and often violent way in which people of color – again, Metro’s core ridership – are policed in the public space. Or are even policed on Metro, where black riders, comprising only 19 percent of rail passengers, regularly received nearly 50 percent of the citations for fare evasion and other infractions and comprised nearly 60 percent of those arrested between 2009 and 2016. And where a young Latino man ended up being crushed by a train during an altercation with Long Beach Police over his non-payment of the $1.75 fare just last year.
For one, the vendors certainly aren’t the intended audience. They know better than anyone just how high the penalties for vending are and the extent to which their livelihoods are at risk if their goods should be confiscated. And the doubling of the police presence on transit as part of Metro’s push to improve “safety” has made the practice even riskier.
Riders of necessity aren’t the intended audience, either. Many are vendors themselves or work in the informal sector and are hyper-aware of what regulations are regarding such practices. Many are also monolingual Spanish speakers, meaning they are likely to be confused by the elaborate musical numbers meant to convey key lessons but which take place in weird landscapes that offer no clues as to what they are about before zapping back to present day where Super Kind is destroying Rude Dude’s things.
Which is why the PSAs feel like an effort to gentrify transit – to make it feel “comfortable” for whiter, well-to-do riders of choice at the expense of those who are less so.
With the expansion of the system, it is natural that Metro would want to reach out to a variety of riders, including those of choice. But considering that it recently adopted a comprehensive equity platform aimed at centering the needs of its lower-income riders of color, it is all the more disheartening to see that Metro’s approach to messaging ostracizes, rather than uplifts, those whose livelihoods are so tightly tied to transit access.
And in light of all the ways in which the #BBQBeckys of the world are taking matters into their own hands when it comes to policing people of color in public spaces, celebrating aggressive confrontations of this sort doesn’t seem either “Super” or “Kind.” Do we really want people pushing youth off trains over loud music? Dragging sick people onto platforms in order to save passengers from the inconvenience of having to render aid? Methinks not.
My message to Metro last week was for it to return to the well of one of the best things it has ever produced – a PSA featuring El Conjunto Nueva Ola. The video was funny and endearing, the music was great, any lessons were offered in the spirit of helping fellow riders, and it made transit appealing by showing everyone had a role to play in creating a better environment.
That’s the kind of bus people want to be on.
That’s also the kind of bus that Super Kind would have taken one look at and zapped into oblivion.
Which means that Super Kind, as an arbiter of what makes transit great or what constitutes kindness, kinda sucks, regardless of what Danny Trejo says.
Do better, Metro.
See the new PSAs below. Visit here to see the first round.