Monday, November 04, 2013

Google TV ad: Rail is choice #2 (that’s OK!)

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Global belief in U.S. "exceptionalism" is being sorely tested these days on many fronts, whether we Americans acknowledge that or not. But most of the world still appears to accept the axiom that Americans excel at marketing. Also at American football, which is where my focus was on a Sunday afternoon.

acela-princeton-junction-njI wasn't surprised that economic powerhouse Google advertises on television, especially on a Sunday laden with NFL football games on numerous TV channels, which I can only watch two at a time. Google advertises, even though its name flashes in front of my face onscreen daily, even though I rely on it to help me do my job. It's good times for Google; time to advertise your wares regardless.

The surprise came in Google's situational scenario. Young Man – looks older than a teen-ager; maybe a year in his new apartment? – gets text message from mother on his smart phone: "Need to talk to you soon" or some equivalent phrase. Young Man ignores for a while, engaging instead in video game activities. Second message pops up from mother: It's about the family dog. Picture of dog appears, looking a bit mopey. This gets the Young Man's attention.

At this point a Google voiceover may or may not be present as the action unfolds; I'm going for the visuals. Young Man is calmly but urgently trying to line up fast transportation from Boston to Washington. Of course, being a U.S.-based ad aimed at most of the nation, flying is the default option. But suddenly, a flashing message notes flight delays at (presumably) Boston Logan International Airport – oh, no! Reunion with ailing dog is in jeopardy!

Still calm, our Young Man issues the one-word voice command "Options" to his smart phone. And there it is: "Hi-Speed Trains" flashes up on top of his screen, complete with a navigator diagram linking Boston and the nation's capital.

I'm not sure the word "Amtrak" appeared anywhere – this is a 21st century, speed-it-by ad age, after all, and I'm comprehending the commercial message as fast as I can just to not lose ground completely – but who else is any kind of "high speed" rail option in the Northeast Corridor?

Young Man smiles triumphantly; punches in data to make reservation. (But will he get to his dog on time? Stay tuned!)

Imagine: Passenger rail travel as an expeditious option. OK, sure, it still was the second option for our TV subject. But it was a viable option. That's progress in recognizing rail, subtle though it may be, courtesy of Mountain View, Calif.-based Google, Inc.

And as they also say on TV: Wait; there's more! I resumed my channel-surfing, only to land directly in the middle of a Norfolk Southern TV ad, with a closeup shot of head-end power and then a stylized overhead view of a classification yard. The view starts at almost ground level, then backs away above, so the viewer sees a tank-car train, then a container consist, then the classic boxcar stereotype profile. The "camera" keeps receding until we see an almost oval yard from way up yonder, with main line leads branching off from left and right. The Norfolk Southern logo gets superimposed on the yard as the announcer (this time I was heeding some of the words) reminds viewers how integral rail service is to the nation's well-being.

This second ad made my day even brighter. For decades, and even during relatively good times, U.S. freight railroads ignored advertising—and it cost them dearly. The rationale may have been simple enough: The average television viewer (or radio listener) doesn't buy services from the railroad, so why bother? But the railroads forfeited any good will that advertising can bring. At best, that assured invisibility with the American voting public. At worst, railroads were almost guaranteeing that any TV coverage they did get "for free" would be negative – a spectacular accident or derailment.

Norfolk Southern's ad Sunday wasn't the first indicator of a new day among Class I's; I've seen other NS ads, along with CSX spots and once even a BNSF ad here on the East Coast (now that's reaching out from a distance). And GE recently ran its "talking train" ad touting high tech on board its locomotive products.

All of it is good stuff. And all of it is worthy, not just because of any "U.S. exceptionalism," real or not, when it comes to marketing, but also because U.S railroads – including passenger railroads – really have something worthwhile to market. The industry now "gets it." I'm very glad it does.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.