Controversial Samsung ads removed at South Station amid concerns over racism

Boston’s South Station.
Boston’s South Station.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Two large advertisements in one of the city’s busiest transit hubs were removed this week amid complaints they were racially insensitive, with Samsung, the company behind the ads, apologizing for offending some Boston residents.

The two signs, which were on display at South Station for some time before the controversy began, read: “We’ll keep your work stuff safe if you go to Alewife and your phone goes to Mattapan.”

Both advertisements were for Samsung Knox, a security feature built into some of the technology giant’s smartphones.

The Alewife MBTA stop is located in Cambridge at one end of the Red Line, while Mattapan, a Boston neighborhood, connects to the other end of that line via a trolley service.


One of those who expressed frustration was Boston city councilor and mayoral candidate Tito Jackson, who said the underlying message of the ads was that people in Mattapan “would take your cellphone” and that Mattapan residents are not trustworthy, or are thieves.

“We can also not ignore that Mattapan is a neighborhood that is predominantly people of color,” Jackson said.

The subtext of the signs, Jackson added, was “absolutely unacceptable.” Mattapan, he said, is “an amazing neighborhood in Boston.”

“They’re racist, man,” he said of the signs. “There’s no sugarcoating it.”

Samsung apologized for any suggestive language Thursday afternoon. “While our advertisement was meant to showcase Knox’s capabilities when someone forgets their phone on the train, as soon as we were made aware of the reaction to our South Station placement, we worked with [ad agency] Clear Channel to take the sign down immediately,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “We sincerely apologize to the people of Mattapan.”

Jackson said Wednesday night he learned of the advertisements when friends drew his attention to a Bay State Banner social media post.


“What’s up with this ad message? Why use Mattapan?,” the Bay State Banner wrote.

Jackson said he complained about the banners to MBTA Transit Police, and was later assured they’d be gone before Thursday morning’s busy commute.

One of the ads, which was at ground level, was removed prior to Jackson’s complaint. But the other, which was hanging higher up, needed to be removed by a person on a lift.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said in an e-mail late Wednesday night that Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation, the firm that manages South Station, controls the advertising inside that transportation hub. The T was not aware of the ad before it went up.

“The MBTA brought the matter to the management company’s attention and they acted quickly, directing Clear Channel to remove the ads,” he said in an e-mail.

Boston mayoral candidate Tito Jackson.
Boston mayoral candidate Tito Jackson.John Tlumacki/Globe Staf

Ashkenazy recently acquired South Station and is evaluating sponsor content with its ad agency, Clear Channel.

The signs were installed a few weeks prior to the company closing on the property.

“There are a couple of signs that have been identified as inconsistent with our guidelines, and have been removed,” a spokeswoman for Ashkenazy said in an e-mail Thursday. “We apologize for any misinterpretations.”

Jackson and the Bay State Banner weren’t the only ones to point out the wording on the signs.

Tory Bullock, a community activist, wrote on Facebook that the advertisement plays into stereotypes about Mattapan.

“When I tell people that everyone thinks if you’re black and live in Mattapan, Dorchester, or Roxbury that it’s assumed you’re a criminal, they never believe me,” said Bullock, who is black. “They look at me like I’m crazy. Then you go to South Station and see a lovely new piece of marketing.”


This isn’t the first time advertisements have prompted complaints from commuters, eventually leading to the removal of the displays. In May, the MBTA removed several ads from furniture retailer Bernie & Phyl’s in subway cars because they were deemed too sexually suggestive.

Jackson said moving forward, the review process for advertisements in locations like South Station should be more closely examined. “The question here is not intent, the real question is the responsibility the ad agency and the companies have in understanding the city in which they’re advertising,” Jackson said. “This never should have happened.”

Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.