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MBTA turns to humor with new etiquette ads

Discarded coffee cups, seat hogs, loud cellphone talkers, spray-in-all-directions sneezers. Courtesy on the T can seem like a dusty relic, discarded long before the token and the turnstile.

Pushing back gently but wryly, the MBTA unveiled a new courtesy campaign yesterday, showcasing mock headlines with a torn-from-the-newspaper look. Five ads appearing on subways and buses show fake clippings - for example, “Man gives up seat for pregnant woman!’’ and “Woman covers mouth while sneezing!’’ - followed by a shared tagline, “Courtesy shouldn’t be big news.’’

“Please, simply do the right thing,’’ all 1,500 posters ask.

“What we’re trying to achieve is a better experience for all of our customers,’’ said Jonathan R. Davis, acting general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, and a daily bus and subway commuter from Medford who has observed his share of etiquette indiscretions.


After taking the helm last month, Davis asked the marketing department to come up with a new courtesy campaign and to try adding a dash of humor. The design work was done in-house, and the printing costs were $2,500 for the ads, which will remain up until early next year.

The previous round of courtesy ads, released in May 2010, carried straightforward slogans (“Stand up for others,’’ “Put others first’’) and portraits of riders, augmented by a recorded announcement from Celtics star Paul Pierce.

“It’s good to periodically remind our customers,’’ Davis said. “This not only reinforces the prior message, but freshens the approach.’’

This campaign marks at least the fourth courtesy effort by the T since October 2006, when the transit agency responded to a Globe column about callous commuters by posting 1,000 politeness placards and distributing hundreds of $2 Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards to riders who displayed good behavior. In the past, T officials have noted an anecdotal improvement in courtesy, but have said the effect wanes over time, requiring new reminders.


Making his way to the Red Line yesterday, Eugene McCarthy welcomed the new signs, saying he hoped they would translate into more riders surrendering seats to those who really need them and fewer trimming their nails on the train, stray clippings flying.

“I just cringe,’’ said McCarthy, 36, of Quincy.

It is enough to make the courteous pine for the good old days of decency, an era, transit historian Bradley H. Clarke said, that is as much myth as reality.

“Campaigns to engender courtesy go back to the founding of the republic, as far as mass transit is concerned,’’ said Clarke, president of the Boston Street Railway Association. His personal collection includes a 1912 courtesy pamphlet from the Boston Elevated Railway and a 1942 poster admonishing passengers not to stand near the doors and block boarding and alighting, to “help speed war transportation.’’

On the city’s first omnibuses, resembling large stagecoaches, passengers handed money up the crowded coach toward the operator, but the change rarely made it all the way back down. On the horse-drawn trolleys that followed, spitting on the floor, where a bed of straw provided insulation, was a frequent source of complaint, Clarke said.

Latter-day complaints center around noisy cellphone conversations and carelessly discarded fast-food wrappers, as well as oblivious or indifferent passengers, especially younger ones.

“Kids today are just driving me nuts,’’ said Andrea Richards, a 45-year-old Roslindale tax accountant exiting at JFK/UMass Station yesterday. “I mean, I have my own, and I’m trying my best; I’m sure all parents do. But kids today do not respect older people.’’


Richards said that the new ads are “on the right track,’’ and that Boston is hardly alone in needing a collective reminder. On a recent trip to her native Jamaica, she found little of the public politness she recalled from her youth. “I was appalled,’’ she said.

Boston-area etiquette consultant Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. said she hoped the new ads would reinforce the theory that “courtesy is contagious.’’

“If you witness someone else giving up their seat to someone in need, you are more likely to give up your seat when someone else in need comes along,’’ said Smith. “When you see people sitting there pretending to read on their Kindle and there’s clearly a 10-month pregnant woman in front of them about to give birth and they’re ignoring her, you’re also more likely to ignore her.’’

Plus, she said, humor helps. “It’s so much more palatable than putting up the ‘rules of the T.’ ’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.