In February this year, the German government announced it would begin trials in five cities offering citizens free public transport. Faced with the threat of lawsuits for having air toxicity levels higher than EU limits, it’s an attempt to entice more people onto public transport in a country where the car is often still seen as king.
Though the image of the chino-sporting Spießer in Stuttgart constantly buffing and rebuffing his Wagen probably pushes it too far, there’s some truth behind the stereotype. While overall use of public transport has risen, cars still dominate the daily commute. Since 2000, the proportion of commuters using public transport has barely changed, rising just 1 per cent to 14 per cent in 16 years. Over two thirds still get to work by car.
For Germany’s regional public transport operators this isn’t for want of effort. In cities across the country, communications teams have been inventive in their attempts to swing the needle in the other direction. After happening upon some of their adverts towards the bottom of a late night YouTube clickhole, I’ve become an aficionado. Some of them are inspired, many mundane, and others profoundly weird. So here’s a selection, for your pleasure.
This is an odd one. Waiting for Godot’s Tram shows two washed-out middle-aged men doing just that in the middle of Dresden, all the while holding a conversation modelled on Beckett’s script, but with some ill-fitting public transport references hammered in.
“Have you let slip the plan?” asks one, when an old woman joins them at the tram stop. “It’s on to the internet,” replies the other. He’s referring to the new timetable.
Clearly the comms team’s frustrated arts graduate decided Dresden needed to know what he wrote his dissertation on. A real hidden gem. Savour it.
Meat and potatoes stuff from the world capital of meat and potatoes: it’s a ten-minute long day-in-the-life video on what it’s like to drive the bus.
Sometimes the presenters wear fancy dress, though it’s not always clear why. Otherwise the running time is crammed full of enough mindless fridge-magnet banter to get the writers a One Show job. One for the purists.
North Rhine Westphalia
Peter Thorwarth is Germany’s answer to Guy Ritchie. He’s well-known for a trilogy of cult films released in the late nineties and early noughties about the capers of oddball provincial losers, all set in a dead-end town near Dortmund.
In 2015 he was commissioned by North-Rhine Westphalia’s public transport operator to film a promotional series. The result was Commuters and Other Heroes – eighteen short videos depicting the mishaps of a set of easily-recognisable stereotypes as they travel around the region. A David Brent-alike is forced to take the train by a driving ban; an affable and streetwise Turkish-German fights off a hen-do; and a feminist/vegetarian student nags on at everyone.
Interspersing the dialogue is some fairly unsubtle promotion for various ticket options.
The daddy. Earlier this year, Berlin’s operator, the BVG, released a pair of trainers that also counted as an annual season ticket for its network. Only 500 pairs were released, and they sold out almost immediately – Berliners queued for hours in sleet to get their hands on them.
It was a knowing and self-consciously cool marketing ploy from Germany’s most self-regarding city, but without a doubt bang on the money. It’s just the latest in a long line of hits from BVG’s renowned comms team.
Though one of their homemade songs went viral, the standout stunt was convincing U2 to perform on the city’s U2 U-Bahn line. At one point, Bono turns to a train as it pulls into the platform to sing directly at a bemused woman and a man, who seems to swear at him. It’s about as good a metaphor for the time they automatically downloaded their new album onto unwitting users’ iTunes accounts as you’re likely to get.
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