There Is One Born Every Hour: Television Advertising on the Buses

Or: Gone in 30 Seconds

Taking ad-Vantage of the sunshine in Leigh, Lancashire.
Bus travel, 21st century style: two pristine PCVs in Leigh bus station. At the front is one of the Vantage-branded Wright Gemini 3s. At the rear is an Enviro400 MMC on the 34/X34 route.

From 1955 to 2001, we had a proper federal ITV made up of regional franchises. Today, there is only a token reference to our ITV regions in its news programming (i.e. Granada Reports in the North West, Calendar for the former Yorkshire Television region). One of the beauties of ITV’s federal system was genuinely regional advertising. As well as ads for the Manchester Evening News or Blackpool Pleasure Beach, there was also cheap and cheerful static adverts. They were voiced by the franchisee’s continuity announcers.In a bid to attract new passengers, public and private sector operators decided to think outside the box. By looking towards the gogglebox. During the late 1970s, a reinvigorated British Rail, as well as private motoring started to chip away at bus and coach passenger numbers.

Reigning Cats and Frogs

In 1980, National Express’ broadside against the newly formed British Coachways was Beeper. Beeper was an animated frog voiced by the late great Kenny Everett. Part of the Beeper Cheaper Frog strategy by the nationalised company was simple fares, where National Express routes ran alongside the British Coachways pool of routes. These were known as Beeper Specials. Besides TV and radio advertising, the frog was also seen at exhibitions and appeared on publicity material till 1984.

Another part of the Beeper Cheaper Frog scheme was a more flexible approach to ticket sales. As well travel agencies and ticket offices, some tickets were sold from portable machines at principal stops. Thanks to National Bus Company’s approach, British Coachways is largely forgotten from our collective memories. Its constituents outlived the consortium.

Animals were another theme of Greater Manchester Transport’s first ever TV advert. Not to be content with using a canine theme for a day ticket (the Sunday Rover), they used an animated Cheshire Cat. In September 1985, a pencil drawn Cheshire Cat was used to advertise its ClipperCard tickets. This used the slogan “They Cut The Fares, They Cut The Fuss” with the grinning cat almost filling the screen. Its punchline was “get a ClipperCard and you’re laughing”. Some of its 2,000 or so buses had accompanying publicity between the top and lower decks, or at the rear of the bus.

On announcing the 1985 Transport Act, Nicholas Ridley said that bus deregulation would have had a downward effect on prices. Another part of the act was the creation of arms-length PTE-owned companies, in preparation for future privatisation. West Midlands Travel stretched to using Richard Briers for their Travelcard advertisement. Their delightful advert showed an imagined animated part of the West Midlands, whilst extolling the convenience of its travel cards. Convenience as well as price was the watchword.

Another profitable sidearm of Passenger Transport Executives’ bus operations was express coach travel. Greater Manchester PTE had Charterplan. There was also Metrocoach – West Yorkshire PTE’s coaching arm. Tyne and Wear PTE entered into a joint agreement with Armstrong-Galley. In the late 1980s, Tyne and Wear PTE’s company was known as Busways. One of their services was the non-stop Clipper from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to London. At £14.00 return in 1990, it offered a cheaper yet luxurious alternative to the King’s Cross train.

“Picking you up tomorrow as usual”

In the world of TV and radio advertising, there seems to be two common factors in bus adverts. One is price, and the other is comfort. As public transport is a distress purchase, the art of moving passengers from A to B should be as seamless as possible. We tend to remember how any given bus was late for the 396th time since 1998. Rail replacement buses seem to be given the same sort of contempt reserved for Turkey Twizzlers and temporary traffic lights.

As seen in the 1982 advertisement (3.50 into this clip featuring random bits of Yorkshire Television and Tyne Tees Television stuff, and Telethon ’88), hopping from bus to bus is encouraged.

Instead of our bus being a travel option for work, school or shopping, Metro West Yorkshire PTE’s advert illustrates its recreational nature. In this slightly creepy advertisement featuring soundalikes of The Mike Sammes Singers, we see the extension of WYPTE’s “Put It On A Bus” campaign. The lyrics of the Mike Sammes Singers style ditty is as follows:

Move around on the bus,
Safe and sound on the bus,
The Day Rover works on the train and the bus.
Multi-bus, come with us,
Where you like, that’s a plus,
But first of all get your seat… on the bus

Part and parcel of the “Put It On A Bus” campaign was the constant use of rear ends in publicity materials (leaflets and stickers), and along the side of West Yorkshire’s buses. Today, this concept wouldn’t have gone anywhere near the first meeting, let alone lithographic printing methods. Also, it did remind passengers of the fact they were valid on Metro West Yorkshire’s green and cream buses as well as joint NBC/WYPTE buses (known as Metro-National and seen in the poppy red and white of the National Bus Company).

“Do you wish you were better informed?”

After price and comfort, public information is another use of precious airtime on the commercial channels. In this context, they have been used to denote major changes of operator, or raise awareness of concessionary fare schemes.

Before elderly people had free off-peak travel, this Summer 1986 advert from Derbyshire County Council went out in the Central Independent Television area. For 80p in 1986, you could have done most, or all of the 236 route from Glossop to Manchester. In GMT Land, that would have been the half fare to the River Etherow at Woolley Bridge, then 12p to Piccadilly Gardens. A trip to Manchester would have been around 40p at concessionary rate.

30 years on, there is no 241 bus in Derbyshire. The closest is the 231 from Alfreton to South Normanton. It is a circular route which only has four journeys from 0945 to 1335. There is no Sunday and Bank Holiday service.

In the run-up to bus deregulation, confusion would move its passengers toward alternative modes of transport. Private motoring and taxis benefited on short distance journeys, trains for longer trips. The start of bus deregulation saw a cornucopia of exciting liveries and belching exhausts through low grade competition.

Well, imagine you’re halfway through your favourite cryptic as hell quiz show. You wonder what’s happening to your 346 or 220 routes. You hear an adapted version of The Who’s Magic Bus coming from your rented Ferguson TV. Then…

Within GM Buses’ clip, we see cameo appearances from Tameside Garage’s staff and buses. Firstly, the iconic MCW Metrobus, a regular on the 346 during the mid-1980s. Note the LED style number indicator on the 204 route. A revolution awaited us, though that wasn’t always for the better.

Over in Birmingham, West Midlands PTE’s buses became West Midlands Travel. In their advert, they let the buses and speeded up film do the talking. Firstly by showing the ‘WM’ brushed aside in favour of its then new logo. Then a few shots of their buses being cleaned and pressed into action. Two different ways of reassuring the converted.

Twenty one years later, How Do Media produced a film for GMPTE. Rather than extolling the joys of the 346 or 220, it was the possibility of a world class public transport system in Greater Manchester. One that would have seen the scheme part-funded by a congestion charge (under the alias of the Greater Manchester Transport Innovation Fund). Narrated by Martin Henfield (then a familiar face on BBC One’s Northwest Tonight), it states in succinct form how the pricing element would have worked.

There was also another video from the “No” point of view in the referendum. This showed a little girl being stranded at the Trafford Centre because of the centre being inside the proposed congestion charge outer zone (inside the M60 motorway). Not lost on the viewer was the use of the out-of-town shopping centre which at the time was owned by Peel Holdings. They were also the biggest advocates of the “No” campaign alongside local UKIP branches and drivers’ groups (both cited surveillance grounds as well as the cost).

In the end, the Noes won it by a country mile, though some parts of the original plans have been carried without C-Charging. Some of which survived in the Northern Hub plans, the expansion of the Metrolink system, and recent City Deals.

30 seconds to transform bus travel

In 2011, FirstGroup was in a period of transition thanks to Giles Fearnley’s occupation of the hot seat in Aberdeen. Mr. Fearnley had a proven track record with Blazefield Holdings, where successes included a much upgraded 36 service from Leeds to Ripon via Harrogate. Another was his use of branding for certain routes – most memorably the Witch Way for the X43 service – and Mainline, for trunk routes on his reinvigorated Burnley and Pendle operations.

Taking over from Moir Lochhead, a much-needed refreshment of the First brand was his main priority. A clear affirmation of this is the delightfully cheesy “I believe that buses are the future” campaign.

This was followed by changes to the livery, which saw Barbies 1 and 2 displaced by today’s Olympia livery. Though this has been far from painless (its Wigan depot moving to Stagecoach for example), it has made for a smarter look – even on its elder six-wheeled statesmen. On face value, it gives an air of approachability (though even the sleekest of buses and liveries aren’t enough to mask operational difficulties). Here’s what Judy Giles (First UK Bus Head of Marketing) had to say in 2011.

In the advert, we see the emphasis on quality rather than price. A vision of modern buses with low emission. Compare that with Stagecoach Manchester’s approach from 2007.

We see Stagecoach Manchester’s advert go for the value-led approach. Economy. From 2007, this cheap and cheerful approach extolled the joys of its Megarider ticket. Back then, it was priced at £9.50 (£13.50 these days, and on a plastic smart card).

Whereas FirstGroup’s advert was designed for the whole ITV network and nationwide satellite television channels, Stagecoach’s ad was aired on local television. That of Channel M, the Manchester Evening News’ one time cable, satellite, and low-power UHF TV channel.

One again, continuing the value-led approach, here’s the Perth transport giant’s nationwide commercial from 2008, featuring Tom Baker on voiceover.

Now, that’s more like it! Here’s how to do a value-led bus commercial. Mention the fact it’s a cheaper option but sell the experience side as well. Don’t go in to mentioning prices too much as fare rates are changeable (that approach went with the original Kwik Save ads). Furthermore, a nationwide bus ad cannot mention the price of each ticket from Broadstairs to Banff; it would take forever.

Where next?

Online advertising should be the next stop, though television as a medium shouldn’t be neglected. Some bus users might have no internet access due to cost, or call into their public library. Their only form of cheap internet access might be aboard the 346, which is more to do with preaching to the converted.

Any number of adverts can bely what is the major elephant in the depot: the product. The product of bus travel is inconsistent. A tin of Heinz Baked Beans doesn’t taste any different in Uppermill to one purchased in Dukinfield. A bog-standard First bus could either be an Enviro400 on the 184 to Huddersfield and Manchester, or a tatty Marshall-bodied Dennis Dart SLF on a local service. We never expect a J.D. Wetherspoon’s breakfast to taste any different from branch to branch. Fares differ from region to region. That also makes selling the joys of bus travel to the masses difficult.

With the bog-standard ITV more or less a nationwide channel, and falling readership of dead-tree newspapers, the internet is the most effective channel for many operators. For the likes of Stagecoach, FirstGroup, Arriva and Transdev, nationwide television channels are just as effective.

Good use of social media is also the way forward. No operator should be without a social media presence; a Facebook page and a Twitter page should be enough. For example, responding to passenger complaints and commendations. Approachability should be the watchword, whether the operator is publicly owned or in the private sector.

Cheshire Cat
We couldn’t find a YouTube clip for Greater Manchester Transport’s ClipperCard advert, so this illustration of a Cheshire Cat by Goetz Kluge (2013) will have to do instead. (Creative Commons License – Some Rights Reserved).

S.V., 16 June 2016.


4 thoughts on “There Is One Born Every Hour: Television Advertising on the Buses

Add yours

  1. Ah! The benefit of hindsight; Perhaps depicting a 204 was not the best choice. “Pick you up tomorrow as usual, but we will drop you off 66 minutes later in 2016 (compared to 36 in 1986)” doesn’t have the same positive impact somehow.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Gordon,

    Many thanks for the information on the Metro West Yorkshire tune entitled The Bus Song. My next stop has got to be eBay, followed by a dusting of my turntable and a 2p to stop the disc from slipping.




  3. Well Stuart, I happen to know of a copy that is in good condition, and plays. My brother has it from my dad’s various belongings that may be of interest to a bus memorabilia collector. He actually used an American dollar to stop it slipping. I have an MP3 copy of the track now. We are trying to find out if the ‘Sharpe’ credited as joint composer was our dad.

    Liked by 1 person

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