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Sexist Metro ad asks "Can't we just talk about shoes?"

WMATA thinks talking about reliable buses is boring, asking "Can't we just talk about shoes?" Instead, many riders are talking about how sexist the agency's new ad is.

Photo by Lucy Westcott via DCist.

WMATA placed the ad highlighting its Metro Forward rebuilding campaign at Metro Center. Capital News Service correspondent Lucy Westcott first noticed the ad, which then appeared on DCist. Backlash to it has been fierce, with many Twitter users and anti-sexism group UltraViolet calling the ad sexist and offensive.

A WMATA spokesperson told DCist that "The point of the ad is to get people talking about Metro's massive rebuilding effort by juxtaposing technical facts with a variety of light responses in conversation between friends."

The ad certainly has people talking, but not for the reasons Metro intended.

Michael Perkins serves on the Arlington County Transportation Commission, though the views expressed here are his own. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children. 


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suggested edit for shoe quote

"Thank God for Metrobus, or else I'd be driving."

by Jack Jackson on Dec 4, 2013 2:06 pm • linkreport

I mean, I don't really think of shoes or talking about/obsessing over shoes to be a gendered thing (women by and large aren't the ones maiming each other over a pair of Air Jordans). Vast fortunes have been built on male fondness for kicks of various kinds, Timberlands, boots, etc.

To me, that's less offensive than the overall intent behind the ad, "juxtaposing technical facts with a variety of" extremely stupid/ditzy-sounding responses. To the extent that it's difficult/impossible to portray a woman sounding ditzy in an ad without coming across as sexist, it deserves that label, but what really gets me is the dripping contempt for all riders that is inherent in the ad.

No, most riders don't know how far the average Metrobus goes between breakdowns (I'm guessing 99.99% of WMATA employees don't know either). And they don't care. They want their train and bus to run on time, without breakdowns or excessive, unpredictable delays. Implicitly sneering at them for failing to appreciate the finer pleasures of rail tamping is catastrophically stupid. Metro's communications people have officially reached comic levels of incompetence.

by Dizzy on Dec 4, 2013 2:20 pm • linkreport

IIRC, there's a male version: "Can't we just talk about sports?" Maybe I'm just old, but I have a hard time getting bent out of shape over trivial stuff like this.

by webdoyenne on Dec 4, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

molehill, meet mountain.

by Thayer-D on Dec 4, 2013 2:42 pm • linkreport

+1 webdoyenne - seems like much ado about nothing to me.

by A. P. on Dec 4, 2013 2:43 pm • linkreport

If they break down that often, then talking about comfortable walking shoes sounds like a good idea.

by Daniel Howard on Dec 4, 2013 2:50 pm • linkreport

The ad didn't provide any context about whether breaking down every 8260 miles is a good thing or a bad thing. How often do other transit agencies' buses break down? Is it getting better, or worse?

by Michael Perkins on Dec 4, 2013 2:55 pm • linkreport

Yeah, I had a discussion about this last night... a round trip on a typical bus route is what, 20 miles? Assume they do ten runs a day per bus (which seems probably low) that's 200 miles a day. Which translates to a bus breaking down every 41 days. I'm way more concerned that they're bragging about each bus breaking down on a monthly basis.

by Dave Murphy on Dec 4, 2013 2:58 pm • linkreport

Replacement for the shoe quote: "Can't we talk about the real issue here?"

WMATA management is using fares from riders and its subsidy from government to put on a PR blitz explaining why they think they're doing a heckuva job. How about WMATA uses its money to improve reliability rather than touting how reliable they think the system is?

Maybe WMATA is correct that talking about reliability is boring. What they have wrong is thinking they have a sufficiently reliable system. Then, they have the nerve to waste money on self-congratulatory propoganda.

WMATA is lucky that sexism is the only thing people noticed was wrong with this ad.

by Falls Church on Dec 4, 2013 2:58 pm • linkreport

Jack, let's keep the gods out of this.

by NE John on Dec 4, 2013 3:07 pm • linkreport

So, I'd say the PR campaign is working.

by charlie on Dec 4, 2013 3:21 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Kolohe on Dec 4, 2013 3:25 pm • linkreport

I wonder if the 8260 miles for breakdown includes buses that fail to start or only those that breakdown during their route. From a customer perspective, if the bus doesnt start in the morning, and a new one has to be send to the remaining ones rescheduled to cover an area it isnt so bad. But if it breaks down with me on it I could be considerably put out.

by Richard on Dec 4, 2013 3:57 pm • linkreport

This ad misses the mark for me for a couple reasons.

1. It is indeed sexist.
2. It's also rather stupid. They're trying to find a clever way to say "we're making progress," but it didn't work herem - it's neither clever nor does it show how they're making progress.
3. the 8,260 miles thing is the wrong kind of stat to feature, people have no context for what that means. And when they do have context, they'll relate it to their car - and lots of cars can do a lot better than that. If they wanted to say "our bus reliability is up 10%," that wouldn've worked better.
4. The "can't we just talk about..." response is great, because regardless of what else we want to discuss, anything would be more interesting than a context-less discussion about some obscure stat.

by Alex B. on Dec 4, 2013 4:36 pm • linkreport

Ok, since the last comment apparently wasn't kosher let me be plain:

This campaign in under Dan Stessel's purview and on his watch. He has a record of really poorly thought out public affairs posture when it comes to women. (among numerous other misfires as a public relations executive)

At some point, WMATA should realize that Stessel is not an asset to their organization and their brand. And they should replace him with someone who is.

by Kolohe on Dec 4, 2013 4:38 pm • linkreport

It's not sexist.

Guys do the same thing.

Guy A: Did you know that Metro trains can go backwards and forwards?

Guy B. Get a life. How 'bout those Nats?

by kob on Dec 4, 2013 4:54 pm • linkreport

If I had a car that broke down on average once every 8,260 miles I'd call it a lemon. Especially if I had a staff of mechanics to maintain it.

by contrarian on Dec 4, 2013 4:55 pm • linkreport

Apologies to @webdoyenne -- he nailed the sports analogy first in this thread.

by kob on Dec 4, 2013 5:00 pm • linkreport

i agree with others-not offensive or sexist. in fact I think its an ok way to convey information. People care a lot about trivial information like this. Jeopardy, Who Wants to Be a millionaire, Trivial Pursuit, etc.

by Tina on Dec 4, 2013 5:05 pm • linkreport

Why are we talking about this? WMATA has far more serious problems. Its almost as if WMATA did this to change the regular drum beat of more substantive negative coverage.

by SJE on Dec 4, 2013 6:04 pm • linkreport

What came to my mind
After the metrics were meaning less
And it's sexist was.
Kelly wants shoes.

by scratchy on Dec 4, 2013 6:20 pm • linkreport

I really do wonder what "Breakdown" means

as contrarian says If I had a car that broke down on average once every 8,260 miles I'd call it a lemon. Especially if I had a staff of mechanics to maintain it.

If "Breakdown" means they had a roadside breakdown that leaves people stranded that is pretty horrible.
If "Breakdown" means unavailable because it is undergoing maintenance that is pretty good.

by Richard on Dec 4, 2013 6:40 pm • linkreport

@ Thayer-D:+1

@ Alex B:1. It is indeed sexist.

So, Sex in the City was a sexist tv-show?

2. It's also rather stupid.

I'd say cliche.

the 8,260 miles thing is the wrong kind of stat ... If they wanted to say "our bus reliability is up 10%," that wouldn've worked better.

Really? Cuz I have no idea what that means. My immediate thoughts were: Up 10% from what? Was it bad, is it now better? I mean, 10% better escalators still means a tonload of crap escalators.

anything would be more interesting than a context-less discussion about some obscure stat.


@ contrarian:If I had a car that broke down on average once every 8,260 miles I'd call it a lemon.

Ask Jiffy Lube and they recommend an oil change every 3,000 miles. Most car manufacturers recommend an oil change between 5,000 and 10,000 miles. Again, we do not know what 'broken down' means.

Also, a car is not a bus.

A relevant comparison would be to compare WMATA's repair schedule with that Fairfax Connector. MTA.

by Jasper on Dec 4, 2013 8:43 pm • linkreport

Actually, I think the stupidity of the conversational replies are a reflection of what people would actually say, which means the facts about metro are things nobody cares about. The marketing people actually realize this, and are saying to the public, look how stupid we are when it comes to finding ways of wasting millions of dollars we can't afford to spend.

by Jon on Dec 4, 2013 9:36 pm • linkreport

@scratchy Yes! That's what I thought of too!

These shoes are 300 dollars
These shoes are 300 dollars
These shoes are 300 f***ing dollars
Let's get em!

by Ted on Dec 4, 2013 9:54 pm • linkreport

The ad might be sexist but that's not really the problem. It's just incredible lame creative. But if this scenario were to happen in real life and someone turned to you and told you how many miles a bus drove without a breakdown, you'd likely look at them and say "Who the F cares?" and then follow that up with something inane like, oh, asking if we can talk about shoes instead.

by Steve Hall on Dec 4, 2013 9:57 pm • linkreport

The ad might be sexist but that's not really the problem. It's just incredible lame creatively.

I don't expect WMATA to know anything about selling itself or being creative and I'm fine with that. However, you're right that the ad is incredibly lame on every front. WMATA should just stick with focusing on things they do reasonably well such as getting people from point A to B.

Here are what creative reliability campaigns look like (and they're non-offensive, to boot!):

One commercial in the "Portfolio" ad effort, which has been running since September, features a man named Kenny, who drives a Toyota Rav4, coming home to find his house falling apart, from the doorknob that comes off to the leak that springs up in his front yard. Kenny is greeted by construction workers who are scrambling to fix it. "Toyota has won more Total Quality Awards than any other automaker and we can all use little more quality these days," says the voiceover.

Colorful TV spots shows a utopian landscape made entirely of people; the sun, clouds and ocean are depicted by humans moving in unison. It carries the ad slogan "Harmony between man, nature and machine." Prius ads will begin appearing on TV on Thursday.

The below ad campaign did a particularly good job of reaching out to millenials:

Ad campaign to promote Honda's new vehicle the Brio, using illustrated typography to highlight the reliability of the car in contrast with the often unpredictable tastes of the young target buyer.

by Falls Church on Dec 4, 2013 10:32 pm • linkreport

I'm glad I stopped using metro. To the person asking what "breakdown" means: really? It doesn't say "out of service", it says BREAK, as in "just stopped working". It's a sign of how pathetic and disconnected metro has gotten that they'd ever think that trumpeting a fact like this would reflect well on them. The shoe response just adds to the stupid, it doesn't really alter the overall stupid nature of the sign. If WMATA really cared about service levels, they'd have open reporting so the public could evaluate their performance. Instead, they *stopped* reporting service interruptions to the public a couple of years back. As far as we can tell, they don't provide accurate information to the metro board, either, because it's just so bad.

by Mike on Dec 5, 2013 7:57 am • linkreport

"My shoe got caught in the escalator"

by JimT on Dec 5, 2013 8:10 am • linkreport

If I had a car that broke down on average once every 8,260 miles I'd call it a lemon. Especially if I had a staff of mechanics to maintain it.

Do you drive your car around for 10 hours a day in urban traffic? Do you drive your car 45,000 miles a year? Do you stop every 1000 feet while driving to pick people up? Do you constantly open and close your car doors, making your AC work harder?

I bet you don't do any of those things. That's why it's a bad comparison.

As for those asking about how they define MDBF, here's the definition from the vital signs report:
The number of total miles traveled before a mechanical breakdown. A failure is an event that requires the bus to be removed from service or deviate from the schedule.
Calculation: Total Bus Miles / Number of failures.

WMATA uses a very broad definition of "failure" when calculating MDBF. Some agencies only count a failure against MDBF if the bus physically cannot make it through the route, WMATA counts those along with failures where by policy they have to take the bus off the route (could include A/C failure, a door failure, etc.) If you lump all of these things together, WMATA falls right about in the middle of the big systems in terms of reliability.

by MLD on Dec 5, 2013 8:32 am • linkreport

Who cares? This overly politically correct society we live in today is getting ridiculous.

by Simit Bhandari on Dec 5, 2013 10:39 am • linkreport

My issue is that the point of this campaign seems to be "look at how much work we're doing that you don't talk about but you sure do kvetch when the escalators are broken or there's a 20 minute delay on the Red line" and/or "look at all these unsung victories. Let's sing about them".

But it's stupid because "all that work" is the work it takes to run a major transit system and those "victories" are really just "not-failures".

So I say to Metro: "My heart beats *100,000* times PER DAY and I made it out of the house this morning with both my hair AND teeth brushed".

by Catherine on Dec 5, 2013 10:44 am • linkreport

So yeah, Dan Stessel, the same man who brought you "One person's harassment is another person's flirting." has a PR department that is now bringing you new and improved Blatant Sexism! (others have noted this)

Also, most of the other posts have touched on how these ads basically say nothing besides "Look at how competent we are! We deserve a medal for baseline competence!"

The issue here is that we've lost quite a bit of the real "push" that would have undermined this kind of campaign - Unsuck is basically inactive, Fixwmata is gone, and MetroTAG died before it even got started (the latter two of those folded into Unsuck - you now redirect automatically).

by Aaron Z. on Dec 5, 2013 1:53 pm • linkreport

In light of my above post, I did just submit an application to join the Rider Advisory Council. I know a lot of people have called it out as a "Dog and Pony Show" but who knows, right?

by Aaron Z. on Dec 5, 2013 2:16 pm • linkreport

Correction, "above post" should be "above reply"

by Aaron Z. on Dec 5, 2013 2:17 pm • linkreport

Can't we just talk about trains?

by David C on Dec 5, 2013 2:46 pm • linkreport

@MLD - You are right that comparing MDBF of a bus to a private car is a fairly meaningless comparison. The problem is that it is the comparison most people seeing the poster will make which is one of the reasons why it is such a poorly designed ad. Since the relevant points of comparison (i.e. what was Metrobus' MDBF the previous year and what is the MDBF of bus' operated by other agencies) are neither provided by the ad nor common knowledge meaning that the vast majority of people viewing the ad will either find it meaningless or make the invalid car comparison (which makes WMATA look bad.)

by Jacob on Dec 5, 2013 3:57 pm • linkreport

I don't get the issue. Women do talk about shoes don't they? I have heard my wife and daughter talk about shoes. Would it be better if it were 2 men talking about football?

The problem here isn't a sexist add, its an overly sensitive public and a trouble making press. Everyone relax

by John L on Dec 5, 2013 8:01 pm • linkreport

The issue is that there is a negative stereotype about women being ditzy and not appreciating math or statistics and this ad reinforces that negative stereotype. It's similar to the sexist Barbie doll that would say "math is hard" when you pulled its string.

It would be better if it was a guy saying he wanted to talk about football because there's no negative stereotype about men being uninterested in math.

That said, the statistic provided in this case truly is uninteresting, so it would be no surprise that both men and women would want to change the subject to something more interesting, like shoes or football.

by Falls Church on Dec 5, 2013 8:33 pm • linkreport

The issue is that there is a negative stereotype about women being ditzy and not appreciating math or statistics and this ad reinforces that negative stereotype. It's similar to the sexist Barbie doll that would say "math is hard" when you pulled its string.

This. This is the problem - the version with women reinforces a negative stereotype.

And there actually is a version of the ad with two men talking and one of them says "can't we just talk about sports?"

by MLD on Dec 6, 2013 8:07 am • linkreport

It's a terrible ad campaign but it annoys me when people cry sexism or racism or homophobia at the drop of a hat. It's slightly insulting but not because of the gender involved but because WMATA is implying their average customer is too stupid to care about that stuff and I don't think that's true.

by BTA on Dec 6, 2013 5:11 pm • linkreport

How is this ad sexist? It passes the Bechdel test which means that it isn't.

by Bechdel on Dec 6, 2013 10:19 pm • linkreport

The ad may or may not be sexist. That is debatable and obviously, people will have opinions about it.

The bigger issue here is the sad fact that the new millinnial age journalistic standard goes like this: a young everyday woman, hurrying off to where ever, peeps something on the subway that she has a reaction to and hastly tweets her opinion about it, and then Channel 7, Channel 9 the NY Observer, and the Washington Posts (among others) come calling, asking if they can run with the story. And then said young woman can sit back feeling warm and satisfied that everybody is talking about her and her viewpoint. And the established media loose more and more credibility everyday.

by EB on Dec 9, 2013 9:47 am • linkreport

Speaking of sexism!

by MLD on Dec 9, 2013 9:54 am • linkreport

Obviously it's not meant to disparage women; it's meant to belittle *Asian* women. Which is, like, totally different, right?

Sadly, the ad copy makes both those stock-photo women seem a little ditzy. The average car in the US is driven a lot more than 8260 miles a year. 12-15K is pretty typical, and 8300 would be low enough to garner you a "low miles" bonus on your insurance rates with many companies. If someone said "My car goes 8 months between breakdowns," it might not mean their car was a lemon, but it wouldn't be anything to brag about, either.

"Hey, did you know that some ingredients in a Metrobus's brake fluid have more than *fifteen* syllables? By comparison, some car brake fluids only have fewer than 15 ingredients. So you might not care about the effectiveness of bus or car brakes (And why would you, you silly girls?) but at least now you know meaningless factoids about them."

by Paula Product on Dec 10, 2013 12:36 pm • linkreport

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