Ottawa’s transit commission gave the go-ahead Wednesday for city staff to put advertising in the city’s light-trail transit stations, though one councillor expressed her concerns about a lack of control over potentially controversial ads.
Transit commission gave the all-clear to staff to start negotiating an advertising program for trains and stations on the Confederation Line LRT with Pattison Outdoor Advertising, the proponent who already manages ads on other OC Transpo properties.
OC Transpo boss John Manconi said Wednesday there are opportunities to cash in on transit users as a “captive audience” in stations and LRT trains.
The “big money” in transit advertising today, Manconi said, is in a “station domination” model seen in markets such as Montreal, where an entire transit station’s colouring and ad space are dedicated to the message of a single brand.
The exterior of the LRT cars themselves, however, won’t be monetized, as Manconi said vehicle wraps would likely damage the trains themselves.
The city currently has a 10-year agreement with Pattison to run advertising through the transit system, with negotiations coming up on a possible five-year extension starting in 2022. The first eight years of the advertising deal netted the city’s $2.2 million in revenue annually, according to a staff report.
River Coun. Riley Brockington questioned the timing of the advertising negotiations, pointing out to the commission that with ridership levels now at 27 per cent of last year’s figures due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, vendors could try to lowball the city based on a lack of traffic on LRT.
City staff are prepared to walk away from the table, Brockington heard, if the deal doesn’t suit the city’s interest.
Manconi said the city will be bringing advertising market values for transit in major metropolitan cities such as Calgary and New York established before the COVID-19 pandemic to the negotiations.
“We’re going to roll up the sleeves and try to get the best value but if it’s not a good value we’ll come back and say, ‘Hey, it’s not worth doing that right now,’” Manconi said.
Transit staff didn’t disclose estimates of how much LRT advertising could bring in on an annual basis, worried they might show their hand in upcoming negotiations.
Bay Coun. Theresa Kavanagh said Wednesday she was excited about the possibility of advertising seen in London’s Underground, where theatre shows in the city’s West End are often promoted, and positioned it as a potential boon to the recovery of Ottawa’s tourism sector post-pandemic.
But Kavanagh, who also serves as council’s liaison on women and gender issues, also expressed concerns about the kinds of ads that could appear in the stations.
She mentioned anti-abortion ads on OC Transpo buses that have spurred complaints in the past as issues she’s hoping to avoid in the LRT stations.
Manconi said that staff’s hands are tied when it comes to certain advertising based on legal precedents set at the Supreme Court and by the Advertising Standards Canada.
He later told reporters that while 99 per cent of ads that flow through the city’s transit system don’t provoke any concerns, staff do have the opportunity to review potentially problematic ad content. Even so, the recourses are limited.
“The (legal) opinions are crystal clear on what we can and cannot say no to. And it puts staff in a horrible position,” Manconi said.
“This is what comes with advertising… It’s come in the past and it’s going to come with this. It’s part of this business.”