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

Kindness in action. In a new Metro etiquette PSA, "Super Kind" blasts "Rude Dude" in the face for listening to loud music.
Kindness in action. In a new Metro etiquette PSA, "Super Kind" blasts "Rude Dude" in the face for listening to loud music.

“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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…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.

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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.

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“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.

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For doing so, he is promptly labeled a “Metro Menace.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 7.10.56 PMThe “but okay” was maddening.

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.

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 3.23.01 PMThe decision to ignore those concerns and double down on the most troubling aspects of last year’s PSAs is a confusing one.

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.

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I have not yet ridden this bus.

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.

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Do better, Metro.

See the new PSAs below. Visit here to see the first round.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Sahra – Do you honestly believe that these videos send a wrong message to “People of Color”. Let’s be real, the only message this sends to African Americans and Latino is that white people are goofy.

    The only thing that is mildly offensive about the videos is that it perpetuates the stereotype that Japanese culture is electronic dance music with bright colored clothing, accessories, and hair.

  • Neil

    Triggered

  • sahra

    As someone who has watched my network condemn these ads as racist and troubling for the last week and half, I do indeed think the message is troubling.

    But thanks for chiming to say it must be nonsense! I expected no less! Congrats on being the first!

  • michael macdonald

    Why do you think the phrase people of color needs scare quotes?

  • It’s me It’s me it’s…

    I wonder how much money Metro is spending on these ads?

  • pocrider

    It seems as though, in the author’s view, there really is not a problem of manners, hygiene, and civility on public transit so much as the overt racism of anyone that would like to peacefully ride the bus or train car. There are millions of “people of color” that use transit without blasting obnoxious music, blocking aisles with their bicycles and personal belongings, or annoy people with vending or panhandling. It is not racist to establish and maintain rules of common courtesy and decency. Metro’s campaign is not effective, but this critique based on an insulting premise that “people of color” are intrinsically rude, etc. and thus are being unfairly targeted begs the question: why does the author assume that bad actors in transit are “people of color”?

  • sahra

    Seems like you’re deliberately misreading the article…I make clear that is not the case, most explicitly when comparing the way Rude Dude and his pineapples are a “menace” while Super Kind, exhibiting some of the same seat hogging and disruptive behaviors, is not.

    Rudeness cuts across race and class – we are all capable of bad behavior, and most of us would prefer not to have to deal with it. But in deliberately targeting a group like the vendors, who are among the least rude folks and who are all lower-income folks of color, Metro’s team of privileged social media makers – who appear to never have actually ridden Metro – has made that unfortunate association.

  • Matti Paul

    I ride Metro and have ridden mass transit in other countries. Vending is annoying, regardless of who’s doing it, as well as the other examples of public behavior Metro is trying to highlight. The question is really what environment should we, as a city, a community, strive for in the spaces of our mass transit. I see social rules in all of our public spaces. Most people abide by them collectively for the benefit of the people around them. Metro should not be any different.
    Many people have issues with the environment on Metro. We should strive to improve, and I think Metro is making an attempt at doing that with these ads. Not simply enforcing rules, but working to change public perceptions and our collective culture with regards to how we use our public transit.

  • Mehmet Berker

    The thing is though, as I think the article makes pretty clear — sometimes people have no choice but to block an aisle with a bike (I have to oftentimes, even on the Red Line where there are dedicated bike spaces, not to say anything of any train cars that have no dedicated spaces whatsoever). Sometimes folks have to carry a lot of stuff, or their strollers, or, if they’re suffering homelessness, literally all their stuff. How the hell is any of this rude?

    In the bike ad, the train is practically empty — who the hell is this guy hurting? In the vending ad, it’s the same, he’s in the bike space not bothering anybody. An example of what would actually be rude in either case would be, say, someone trying to get by, and a guy with a bike refusing to move; or a vendor refusing to move when a biker boards.

    Actual courtesy and etiquette is an exchange between people just trying to live their lives and realizing we all just have shit we gotta carry, both physically and metaphorically. So the problem is that these ads are just dumb moral policing dreck treating the mere existence of a vendor, or a bike in a non-designated space, without any context, as infractions.

    I’ve been riding transit since I was 13, I can show you what actual rude behavior looks like. The fact that Metro’s message-makers can’t belies their lack of understanding of their own system.

    Yeah I realize they’re supposed to be fun and snappy, and they are. They just send a lame-ass message in the end, which is the point.

  • pocrider

    Mehmet Berker, I agree with you on many of the critical points you raise. The PSA’s are not as effective as they could be.

    However, there is a level of “dumb moral policing” that is absolutely in order in an environment like this. We, the riders of Metro, do not share a common language, we have an incredibly diverse cultural mix spanning nearly every corner of the globe. There are very few shared cultural understandings among individuals from such wildly diverse backgrounds. This situation requires “dumb moral policing”, particularly with figurative characters in costume or animated to represent the abstract idea of “good transit rider” and “bad transit rider” as well as an embodiment of an “enforcer of rules”.

    Again, these ads miss their mark and your criticism is well taken. However, the general thrust of demonstrating simplistic rules of conduct is entirely in order.

  • CommonSense

    This is absurd. No one has a right to inconvenience others if it can be avoided regardless of race or means. Obviously exceptions are made when necessary. Vending isn’t allowed on transit because it detracts from a collective environment. If it’s your only economic choice, consider doing it on the newly legalized sidewalks. Sure there’s not always space for bikes in the bike spaces but sometimes there is and inconsiderate people park their bikes elsewhere anyways. Countless people play loud music on trains with devices that literally come with headphones. Asking people to consider others through comically exaggerated means isn’t racist–it’s a public service. Obviously no one is suggesting exiling food vendors… Imagine if all this farcical outrage was directed at something that is actually making peoples lives worse instead of a well intended goofy ad campaign that has actually reached a relatively wide audience exactly because it is goofy and over-the-top–perhaps the Koch brothers campaign against rail expansions for example?

  • sahra

    It really troubles me when people who work in planning can’t see through lenses other than that of their own experience.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Not scare quotes – it is Sahra’s categorization, not mine.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Thanks for the Twitter shout-out! I guess that and my tap card will get me a ride on the Metro…

    I stumbled across your Tweet while trying to find the “my network” you referenced. I would love to see the hoards of people who find these adds offensive. Personally, I would love to see what the Asian community thinks. Are they part of your network? Also, does your network include African-American and Latino Metro riders? I would love to see their responses/criticisms of these adds. You know, primary research that journalists should do.

  • Lisa Abboud

    The anime superhero may appeal to the young demographic, but she is rude, judgmental, and a bully. Her actions in real life could very well result in escalating into a violent situation. A good PSA should inform, create awareness, help the people understand the importance of an issue, persuade people to take a desirable action ultimately promoting a behavioral change. Does these PSA’s accomplish these goals?

    Why not feature real transit riders that reflect the diversity of LA behaving politely and correctly and show the superhero acknowledging and rewarding the polite behavior thereby reinforcing the good instead of punishing the bad. Why doesn’t the person with the pineapples pick up the basket and smile and nod indicating that the seat is open?

    Regarding the comments on race: why doesn’t the anime superhero show typical negative interactions between races and use her powers to correct those interactions. She can conjure up a bubble image of young people of color that might be perceived as thugs by some, because of the style of clothing give up their seats for elderly people, or help someone with their stroller, or turn down their music. Feature the people that are helped or request quiet say thank you.

    I have witnessed incredible kindnesses while riding public transit. I have seen people that clearly do not speak the same language help one another and communicate their good intentions through gestures and nods.

  • pocrider_v2

    Mehmet Berker, I agree with you on many of the critical points you raise. The PSA’s are not as effective as they could be.

    However, there is a level of “dumb moral policing” that is absolutely in order in an environment like this. We, the riders of Metro, do not share a common language, we have an incredibly diverse cultural mix spanning nearly every corner of the globe. There are very few shared cultural understandings among individuals from such wildly diverse backgrounds. This situation requires “dumb moral policing”, particularly with figurative characters in costume or animated to represent the abstract idea of “good transit rider” and “bad transit rider” as well as an embodiment of an “enforcer of rules”.

    Again, these ads miss their mark and your criticism is well taken. However, the general thrust of demonstrating simplistic rules of conduct is entirely in order.

  • sahra

    i couldn’t figure out why you replied with the same comment twice but when i checked disqus, i realized it must have been b/c your first comment got marked as spam. i’m not sure how/why that happened, so the original is reinstated below. sorry for the hiccup.

  • Gray

    Ok, I get that this was intended as a somewhat silly campaign…but it missed the mark. Notwithstanding a personal dislike of anime (which I admit to), there’s nothing that comes across as “kind” about Superkind. In TVTropes terms (and I am using the titles here), I think they were shooting for “Kick the Son of a Bitch” and got, at best, “Jerkass Has a Point”. At the very least, she’s not someone I think I’d want to have to deal with on a regular basis.

    To be fair, I think a more “Goofus and Gallant” approach might have come across better. Then again, so might “Superkind” acting…well, kind.

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