While the Victorian government spends millions sorting out the Myki ticketing system debacle and agonises over new tollways and tunnels, Victorian motorists and public transport users remain the targets for obscure, patronising and occasionally downright creepy advertising.

Connex, the current operator of Melbourne’s metropolitan rail services, introduced itself to commuters a few years ago with ads presented by US singer-actor Harry Connick Jr based solely on the pun that his name sounds like “Connex”. Engaging fellow that Connick is, even his performance couldn’t make a fundamentally lazy creative idea work.

But the perplexed reactions and annoyed groans didn’t stop Connex — it has since been responsible for a series of campaigns ranging from the irritating to the mystifying.

Early in 2006, Connex embarked on a strategy — intrinsically not a bad idea — to get commuters to “co-produce” a more satisfying service experience by pre-purchasing their tickets. However, it based this around a contrived catchphrase — BATBY-GOB-STOPL (“Buying A Ticket Before You Get On Board Saves Time Or Problems Later”). While Connex described the acronym as “annoyingly catchy tongue-in-cheek”, commuters and transport advocates were typically GOB-smacked at its inanity

Later in 2006, Connex launched a campaign with the slogan “Don’t hold others back” apparently designed around the unsellable premise that thoughtless commuters often had only themselves to blame if their trains didn’t run on time. The ads by agency Cummins & Partners featured disturbing black and white cinematography and what sounded like a funeral lament — in Russian — by Tatar singer Zulya Kamalova, the whole thing evocative of a Stalinist-era Soviet state.

A Connex press release said the TV ads “(could) only be described as intriguing”, but commuters and critics found lots of other descriptions!

In January this year, peak Melbourne public transport brand Metlink launched its “fare evasion karma” campaign around the idea that fate eventually catches up with travellers who don’t buy tickets. On radio, actor Tiriel Mora ( Frontline , The Castle ) told tales of fare evaders in an arch, ironic style. But the “bad karma” visited upon these villains was neither ironic nor tragic, and definitely not funny; for example, the fate that befell fare evader “Gordon” was that “a gaggle of Girl Guides harassed him into buying 97 boxes of cookies”. Visitors to the campaign’s ” Karma Central” website were greeted by the “karma llama”. Perhaps they just misspelled “lame”.

Not to be outdone, two concurrent VicRoads campaigns have also left Melbourne motorists scratching their heads this year.

First came ” Obey The Yellow“, designed to remind motorists of their obligation to make way for trams on shared roadways. The on-screen
“presenter” of these print, outdoor and TV ads is a computer-generated guy who looks like a cross between Batman and a crash-test dummy. He’s all in black with a broad yellow vertical line traversing six-pack abs and bulging crotch, holding a car in one hand and a tram in the other. On the side of trams, he’s lying down with a “come hither” look.

On TV, actor Grant Piro ( The Librarians ) delivers the script in a strange staccato style: “This is (pause) The Yellow (unnatural emphasis), the line (pause again) that separates cars from trams.” I’ve yet to meet anyone who comprehends or can explain the creative idea behind having the yellow line come to life in such a creepy way.

Then there’s the somewhat disturbing “Share the Road” ads in which actor Mark Owen-Taylor ( A Country Practice , Hey Dad! ) strides around like a deity overlooking a ghostly model of Melbourne, with buildings, roads, bridges and tunnels all in white. Occasionally, he lifts the lid off a tollway tunnel as though it were some kind of ant farm, revealing little white moving cars and motorbikes. In one ad, he uses “the hand of God” to intervene, holding one car back so another can turn out of a laneway.

Owen-Taylor comes across like a somewhat toffy and ineffectual new-age parent: “Don’t change lanes unless you really need to… If we all keep these things in mind… We all have a responsibility to consider other road users… Think of other drivers and their perspective…” It’s hard to understand why VicRoads and its agency, Marmalade, have taken this cold and strangely detached approach, given the long history in Victoria of highly engaging and emotional advertising around road safety issues, most notably the Transport Accident Commission’s internationally-recognised campaigns.

Perhaps the only recent transport campaign to have bucked the trend to unemotional executions is an ongoing series of Metlink ads (like this one) featuring comedian Frank Woodley singing and joking about the virtues of Melbourne’s buses. Not all of them are everyone’s cup of tea, but at least they are disarmingly — and, to some, charmingly — accessible.

Using advertising to try to change consumer attitudes and behaviour in “grudge” service categories like transport calls for brutal honesty and self-reflection on the part of the advertiser, especially when you have a Government-guaranteed monopoly. You have to work hard to disarm natural counter-arguments first — by acknowledging your own shortcomings — before consumers will consider giving you a fair hearing.

When such ads do succeed, it is generally because they are delivered with a very high degree of customer empathy and ironic humour. But judging by consumer reactions and the blogospher, being obscure, flippant, detached or just plain smart-arsed merely tends to reinforce the belief that transport authorities don’t get it.