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June 7, 2008

Hook, line, or stinker?

T, Legal Sea Foods dispute how ‘fresh’ ads can be

An insult ad from Legal Sea Foods that appeared on a Green Line trolley.Legal Sea Foods

The wisecracking cartoon fish that recently appeared on the sides of Green Line trolleys have some lines that sound like they were ripped from a Henny Youngman routine: “Hey lady, I’ve seen smaller noses on a swordfish,” and, “This trolley gets around more than your sister.” Then there’s this side-splitter sure to leave `em laughing: “This conductor has a face like a halibut.” Ba-boom.

A lot of riders on the Green Line seem to think they’re a hoot. So does Roger Berkowitz, the chief executive of Legal Sea Foods, who shelled out $150,000 for the ad campaign featuring the “fresh” fish.


But the MBTA is not laughing. Neither are the hundreds of employees who work on the Green line. This week, after the trolley conductors union complained to T management, the agency’s top brass ordered the immediate removal of the “this conductor” ads, deeming them in poor taste.

The T “felt this ad was inappropriate and disrespectful to employees,” spokesman Joe Pesaturo said.

Yesterday, some riders agreed, bemoaning the crass direction of comedy these days. But most said that in a world where shows like “South Park” and “Jackass” draw millions by routinely pushing the limits of taste, they’ve seen far worse. And laughed at it.

“You can’t take everything personally,” said Deana Cruthird, 31, at Kenmore station.

And, besides, said Russell Sweet, 48, “There are plenty of other things to be offended about.”

But that’s not the view of Stephan G. MacDougall, president of the Boston Carmen’s Union, who fielded 40 phone calls from Green Line workers incensed by the ads.

“To say they are angered and offended is to put it lightly,” MacDougall said. “I will tell you this: If they don’t come down, we will not drive those trains.”

MacDougall said he likes Legal Sea Foods, and cannot understand why the company and the T could not have anticipated a backlash to the ads.


“Who the hell wants to say they have a face like a fish?” he said. “I happen to like to eat fish, and I like seafood, and I like going fishing, but I don’t want anybody saying that I or any of my members look like a fish.”

Berkowitz said all he wanted to do was draw attention to his “really fresh fish.”

“They’re cute ads,” Berkowitz said. “It’s hard to conceive of anyone being insulted by them, truly insulted by them, because it’s coming out of the mouth of a fish and it’s really tongue-in-cheek. For anyone to take it personally, I’d have to sit there scratching my head.”

The ads were designed by the New York ad agency DeVito/Verdi, which vetoed one idea as too crass: “This trolley is a lot like your mother. Anyone with a couple of bucks can get a ride.”

“So it’s not like we’re insensitive,” said Ellis Verdi, president of the agency.

Proofs of the ads were sent to the T’s advertising contractor, Titan, which approved them earlier this year. Ads went up on 25 Green Line trolleys on May 20 and were scheduled to run through mid July. T officials said they have not received complaints from riders.

The MBTA has in the past rejected an ad questioning marijuana laws and a public service announcement from Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral, which it deemed political advertising because it ran during an election season.


MBTA advertising policy explicitly forbids “demeaning or disparaging” ads.

The policy says that the T decides “whether a reasonably prudent person, knowledgeable of the MBTA’s ridership and using prevailing community standards, would believe that the advertisement contains material that ridicules or mocks, is abusive or hostile to, or debases the dignity or stature of, an individual or group of individuals.”

In the case of the “this conductor” ads, MBTA General Manager Daniel A. Grabauskas did not find that they violated the policy but used his discretion to order them removed, Pesaturo said. The other fish ads will remain in place.

Berkowitz said he was surprised by the decision because Legal Sea Foods did not hear any complaints after it sponsored a virtually identical ad campaign earlier this year on the tops of Boston taxicabs. Those ads showed a fish declaring, “this driver has a face like a halibut.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Globe correspondent Sarah Gantz contributed to this report.