About once a week, I find myself on a subway car that is plastered full of advertisements for the New York City Subway.  When I first saw these self-promotional advertisements last year, I couldn’t help but chuckle.  What a waste of money, or at least, a lost opportunity to make money.  The people seeing the ads are already on the subway, why present them with more advertising?  Once customers are inside the subway system there are no additional services to purchase, no additional revenue that could be made by the MTA (the company who maintains the New York City Subway), why spend money and use precious advertising space just to tell subway riders about all the new things being built in the subway?

Then I took a step back and noticed something pretty interesting.  Before the MTA started advertising to educate customers on the things they were building, the general tone of conversation about the subway was extremely negative.  The cost of a monthly subway pass had recently increased by nearly 40% and everywhere I went, from the office, to the gym, to actually riding in the subway, people were complaining about how terrible the MTA was.  There was even negative advertising assaulting the subway posted outside subway stations.  I specifically remember one sign that said something like… “For $112 per month, there should be a sauna, steam room and towel service down there” – poking fun at the fact that a monthly subway pass was now more expensive than the average monthly gym membership.

However, after the MTA started advertising their capital improvements to their customers, the tone of the conversation changed.  Did you know that there are 468 total subway stations in New York City?  Did you know that they’re connecting the LIRR to Grand Central?  Did you know that they’re re-building the Culver Street Aqueduct line?

Neither the LIRR nor the Culver Street Aqueduct line have any impact on my daily commute, but just knowing that the MTA is actively building and making capital improvements helps change the tone of the conversation from “the MTA is terrible” to “Did you know they’re building something new?”

Human nature can be cruel sometimes.  More often than not, when there is no communication about something getting better, people assume that it’s getting worse.  These small assumptions lead to mild dissatisfaction, which quickly leads to complaints, which can lead to – in the case of the subway – legislative action to put limits on how much the MTA can charge riders.

However, a little communication can go a long way.  Since the MTA started advertising, I haven’t heard a single person complain about the subway.  All of the noise about legislative limitations on subway fares has gone away.  I would be willing to bet that customer satisfaction has also gone up.  Now that everyone knows that the MTA is working to improve the system, they have dramatically changed how their customers see them as a service provider.  Even the riders, like me, who are wholly unaffected by the capital investments being made by the MTA, feel a whole lot better just knowing that they are doing something.

Every time that I happen to get on a subway car that is fully covered with advertisements for the MTA, I remember: a little self-promotion goes a long way.

The Importance of Self-Promotion, A Lesson from the New York City Subway
  • I might come at it a slightly different way – look at how easy it is to move from ignorance to negative judgement. Should that be cautionary? Should we strive to assume that, given ignorance of what’s occurring, we should withhold judgement?

    Note – this is a nice example of the (not so) Fundamental Attribution Error. People see the fares rise – or themselves inconvenienced by delays/dirty stations – and assume that the MTA is bad, as opposed to recognizing that the actions of the MTA could be driven by the situation the MTA is in.

  • Simon Dexter


    Can’t hold myself from making a comment: look at Law and Order, the image of the police department and crime in the city. I know it sounds far fetched, but I believe there is a connection between how communication (the movie) first changed perception of law enforcement activities and then impacted actual behavior of citizens (dramatic drop in crime rates). There is a strong parallel between this and the MTA example you gave.