Taking on Violent Advertisements at Bus Shelters

By: CCFC Member Amy Vachon

For a few months now, I’ve been hopping the local bus home from work twice each week. I must admit that I haven’t been a regular bus rider for a number of years. But the experience has been pretty gratifying, with a bus stop nearby, entertaining drivers, an app that tells me exactly when the bus will pull up (wow – amazing!), and cool new bus shelters erected in our town.

But after a while, I started to notice the advertisements plastered on those shelters in between obsessive peaks at my phone to see exactly when the bus would pull up. And I started to get mad.

Time and again, these were ads depicting scenes of intense violence. Most recently, for example, shelter waiters were forced to stand inches from an almost life-size picture of a man with a needle-sharp weapon just about to gore another man to death on an advertisement for the M-rated video game, Assassin’s Creed III. I took to standing outside the shelter so I would not have to look at this image, but I began to think about all of the people – especially the children and teens – who would have it burned into their minds over the course of the weeks it was displayed.  I thought of Newtown, CT, and of the callous, cavalier, show-off way in which this violence was used as the compelling reason to buy this video game.

So one day I stopped manically refreshing my bus arrival app and used my phone to copy down the number of the shelter and the name of the company that built it: Cemusa. Googling Cemusa gave me its Vice President of Sales; an email to her gave me her admission that this ad did run and a pass-off to Cemusa’s COO, David Yagnesak. A friendly message to David got me nowhere. His response was (ever so slightly paraphrased), “Go away little person; I will only answer to the MBTA.”

My answer back to Mr. Yagneska was an assurance that the MBTA (the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which maintains our subway, bus and commuter rail system) will be quite interested to learn that one of its vendors was not following its policy specifically prohibiting advertisements for M-rated video games or ads with any violent images (handily, the MBTA policy was available online to the public). And off I went to the MBTA.

But not without a few friends. I emailed  my state congressman, two of the members of my city council, and my local grassroots community organization. I also contacted Josh Golin of CCFC, which was responsible for getting the MBTA to implement its policy prohibiting the advertisements for M-rated games. I spoke up about the issue on my town’s citizen-action Facebook pages and got back examples of more nearby offensive bus shelter ads. All lent their support (especially Josh, who shared with me the right leader to speak with at the MBTA and also contacted her). After a bit of back-and-forth, Josh and I were able to confirm with MBTA leaders that their policy did in fact prohibit such advertising on all bus shelters, and that they would speak with Cemusa about the matter. Ha!

Here’s where I learned something I always suspected, but still hoped would not be true: activism is often messy, incomplete, and continuous. I may have won the ‘who is right’ battle, and I may even have gotten someone’s attention, but I don’t have full confidence that I won’t see something horrible again on my next wait for the bus and no one was able to tell me why the policy seems to be so easily bypassed. My lesson is to accept that every bit of effort is worth so much more than inaction, and that it is okay if I have to keep fighting. I’ve learned who to contact, who will support me, and who will help me watchdog the bus shelters for future wrongs. And maybe I’ve helped a few kids (and adults) have a more peaceful day.

Cemusa – we’re watching you!

Amy Vachon is co-author of “Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents,” and lives in Watertown, Massachusetts with her husband and children.

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