Stellar Stupidity From Astral Media

Torontoist reports today on an ad campaign for Virgin Radio that may seem innocent to some, but is to others, me included, in extremely poor taste.

The ad exhorts passersby to “Give Your Radio a Reason to Live”, and features a portable radio perched on the edge of a subway platform, unplugged, obviously ready to end it all.  Cute, but not when you contemplate the issue of suicide and its role not just on the subway but life in Toronto in general.

Jonathan Goldsbie’s article delves into the background of transit shelter advertising and how this ad came to be shot, apparently without the TTC realizing what was happening, in the first place.

The ads will be removed, but meanwhile Astral Media (who also happens to own Virgin Radio) needs a few lessons about intelligent and sensitive use of public space.

[A note to all who might comment here:  For reasons that should be obvious, I will only entertain discussions about advertising and the control of images in public spaces.]

23 thoughts on “Stellar Stupidity From Astral Media

  1. Isn’t that Sheppard-Yonge station (Sheppard line)?

    Steve: If you read the article, you would know that I already identified this location two days ago when the article was in preparation.

    Just out of curiosity … does the TTC/City of Toronto have any say at all in what ads are put up my Astral Media or can Astral Media put whatever they want? (obviously no law breaking ads).

    Steve: Read the article.

    You are putting the “blame” (or whatever word you want to use) to Astral Media, shouldn’t Virgin Radio have some of this “blame”? Some executive/manager had to stamp the ad with a Virgin INC stamp of aproval on the ad.

    Steve: Virgin Radio is owned by Astral Media. Read the article.

    Right now there are many things I couldn’t say on TV (It’s 10:15am).

    There should be some REAL control of ads/images. The issue is: who is to decide what is “appropriate” or not? We all have different views. If I see an ad for the Pride Parade 2009, I have no problem with that in fact I have gone to see that Parade for the past 5 or so years and I am sure there are people who would be opposed to that ad, it is their right to say that they don’t like that ad.

    Steve: The issue with advertising is that if it exploits violence or some unwelcome social act, then it is, at a minimum, up for scrutiny. The TTC already has rules about anything that might be construed as portraying suicide, but they don’t control what goes in bus shelters. The Pride Day parade may offend some people because of what it represents, but the event itself celebrates the diversity of the community. I have walked in it almost every year since 1993.


  2. As somebody very familiar with advertising in the TTC, all I can say is how disappointing this is, and sloppy the vendor was to allow it. I personally vet all questionable ad content, and to date, have never had creative pulled for public outrage. Not to say it won’t happen, but let me tell you- I’ve pulled some stuff you wouldn’t believe before even asking the TTC’s permission.

    Thanks for not attacking advertising as ‘evil’ as so often happens in these cases, but identifying and fairly commenting on the example itself.

    When you work as close as some of us do with the subway- this ain’t funny. Our crews have pulled emergency powercut to save troubled souls… it’s real lives, and real death… not funny.


  3. I’ve been listening to Virgin Radio since before it was Virgin Radio. As you mention, both the station and advertising on the TTC is owned by Astral Media. To be frank there seems to be general lack of oversight on transit ads, every few months it seems we hear about something controversial in one way or another. Just off hand I can recall the Downsview Debacle, The God ads, This thing, and the subway ad that sold sex without selling sex. Frankly, there needs to be more control over these things.

    Steve: “The God Ads” as call them, were legitimate ads that had run in many other cities around the world suggesting that God might not exist, and people should just get on with life. This does not exploit anything. The ads that sold sex to which you refer were for a men’s bathhouse, a perfectly legal enterprise, although one wonders whether that’s the sort of thing appropriate for a public audience. There are ads for condoms and for safe sex, and I won’t say anything about Lava Life. There is a fundamental difference here.


  4. I think this is taking political correctness to an extreme. Let’s say that radio was pictured with an empty pill bottle of barbiturates, would people be freaking out saying that it’s insensitive to all people who take meds or those who have killed themselves with sleeping pills? Come on.

    If people are really concerned about subway suicides, then …

    a) they should push for barriers instead of attacking this ad
    b) they need to convince the TTC to not be so hush-hush about it

    Really, the ad isn’t all that bad.

    Steve: The issue isn’t that it’s the subway, it’s that suicide is being used to advertise a radio station. Meanwhile for the cost of barriers, we could make a lot of improvements in health care. Barriers are a technological solution to a social problem. They may prevent, or at least complicate, acts in the subway (as the “luminous veil” did on the Prince Edward Viaduct), but they don’t get rid of the urge. People just go somewhere else.

    The TTC is hush-hush about it because of copycats.


  5. Further to Mimmo’s comment, there were (are) in fact other ads in the Virgin series, not just the subway one. One (shown in the Torontoist post) is related to electrocution. In another we see a radio perched on the edge of a girder on the underside of a bridge, ready to jump off. I had not heard of or seen the subway one until now. The bridge one in particular struck me as being questionable (not that the bathtub one didn’t, just that the bridge one did moreso).


  6. Steve “People just go somewhere else.”

    This may be off-topic, but Steve, I’m surprised you would say that. If you dig into the literature around suicide, you will find that there are aspects to it that are both desparate and opportunistic. There are certainly people who are hell bent on completing the act, and there’s no stopping them, and they will simply do something else.

    There’s also a group – perhaps smaller – who seem to succumb to an opportunity. Who don’t particularly seek out the high bridge, subway platform, etc. But the day they suddenly find themselves standing beside the opportunity, they take it, without very much thought. There’s a long history of data on this – dating back to when they got rid of odourless coal gas ovens in the UK, and observed a marked drop in the suicide rates.

    One aspect of the barriers on a subway is eliminating operational delays and the trauma for drivers. However, there are also lives that are saved – not just moved elsewhere.

    I realise that this goes outside of your guidelines for this topic – but if you don’t post it, please consider the issue; as I’m sure it will come up again and again during the next decade.

    Steve: What I didn’t want to get into was a big debate about how the TTC handles these incidents. Yes I know about the different classes of would-be suicides and the distinction between those who, deprived of an easy opportunity such as a major bridge or a subway station, may actually not ever attempt the act. That’s the rationale behind the veil on the Viaduct. However, I also don’t want to give comfort to any claim that spending a very large amount of money on platform barriers will make the problem go away.

    There are many technical issues in retrofitting this sort of system to the subway and it’s certainly not something that will be doable in the short term. The questions, then, are whether we need to start somewhere, and therefore when and where this should happen, as well as whether the TTC will actually be able to maintain the barriers in working order.

    The latter is a practical matter because this will add a significant mechanical component that could fail and affect service far more often than the problem it seeks to prevent. I am not saying we shouldn’t save lives, far from it, but if we do so claiming that we will also improve service and actually make it worse, then something was wrong with the original premise. If anything, I would prefer to see the two arguments decoupled.

    As a comparative example, there have been far more signal failures recently than suicides (based on the expected number in, say, a month) and fixing the signals will have more of an effect on service quality. Save lives because you should save lives, not because it will make the subway service more reliable.


  7. Steve said … “it’s that suicide is being used to advertise a radio station.”

    And by bringing more attention to this ad, isn’t that what you’re doing? One of our neighbours on Euclid Av. threw herself in front of a train at Bathurst Stn. in the 70s, and this ad certainly didn’t offend me.

    The TTC is wrong in being hush-hush about it, because throwing yourself in front of train, more often than not, does not lead to a quick and painless death. If they would get this message out instead of sweeping it under the rug, it might actually deter people from doing it on the subway.

    Steve: Well, no, it would simply make for lots of grim front page stories in the Sun, a journal not noted for its taste in accident coverage, and there will always be people who think they can beat the odds. There is a history in Toronto that whenever a suicide was published, more attempts followed based on the reported event.


  8. What I find amazing about this is the timing. Had this been done 6 months ago, it wouldn’t be PERCEIVED as insensitive as today (even though in reality it is equally as insensitive regardless of timing, it’s more a matter of how the general public (and its frame of mind, which is where timing does come in) will react to it). It suggest an obliviousness towards current events.


  9. Everyone knows radios are dead anyway. It’s all about podcasts these days. Leave the ads up and stop whining.

    Steve: Whether radio is already dead has nothing to do with it, and those of us who object to the premise are not whining. Those who use such language do their otherwise valid, or at least interesting, arguments no good.


  10. Another trivialisation of the word and concept of “suicide” is the description by restaurants of their extra hot wings as “suicide”. This is anathema to me, though I do enjoy spicy food. In many cases, these wings are not actually hot and spicy, but just “silly hot”, so from a taste perspective, I rarely order them. However, when on a few occasions, I have ordered “extra hot”, only to have the chirpy waitress say, “Oh you mean suicide”, I respond – “No that term is offensive, I mean extra hot”.

    I can’t conceive of the impact on a family member who may have experienced the tragedy of suicide – recovering slowly from the shock and actually going out for a fun night only to meet such insensitivity.

    Another Radio Station, The Edge once ran a radio comercial about “edginess” where a deranged person being calmed down said “I have a hammer”. It was an obvious reference to the schizophrenic gunned down by police on a streetcar. (Edward Wu if I remember.) Commercial Radio in Canada has a strong tendency towards lack of taste and lack of class, both in its advertising and also in its degrading contests.


  11. I see the radio as an inanimate object. I do not connect a radio (that obviously can’t move on it’s own) perched in that position to a person about to jump. I’m sorry if I appear insensitive here but if we are going to allow other things that offend segments of the population we will have to endure this as well.

    There is plenty of music out there written in various lights about suicide and there’s even a group with the word in their name. It’s not like we don’t see and hear about this topic on a fairly regular basis. I have coworkers who make comments about miserable and menial tasks at work comparing them to suicide. They would be considered offensive as well?

    The worst though is that out of all this a really lousy radio station gets more press than it ever would have received by using one of the “mp-free” ads that Virgin’s predecessor did.

    Steve: The distinction here is that if you choose to listen to some third-rate band’s music about suicide, you made that choice. Here, Astral Media has a contract to manage advertising space in City transit shelters, in effect a license granted to them by Council and the public at large to use our space in return for provision of “street furniture”. Someone walking to their bus stop cannot avoid the ad that happens to be there, and the ad is in a location widely perceived to be part of the public domain where issues of civic image and sensitivity arise.


  12. It’s deceptions like this that make it difficult for photography hobbyists to take non-commercial photos on TTC property without being asked to leave by TTC personnel, let alone the utter tastelessness and insensitivity of the ad itself.

    Steve: And FYI the new TTC bylaw has a ban only on commercial photography, and you can take all the photos you like on the TTC as long as you don’t interfere with operations. How many of the staff know this is quite another matter.


  13. Well… This is Virgin after all. Their Marketing strategy is to create controversy so that people will talk about them.

    From their point of view they got some free advertising on the Torontoist site, and on

    Steve: Yes, the sort of advertising that puts the “Virgin” name in all its incarnations further down on my list of potential outfits I might want to buy stuff from.

    And yes, I am a left wing, pinko, NDP supporting CBC listener who obviously doesn’t appreciate good advertising. It’s clever, and a series based on the premise might show up in the graphics journals and trade contests. That doesn’t change the context of the content.


  14. What about just a hands off approach? The best way to protect free speech is more free speech. The First Amendment protects this. According to Alexis de Tocqueville, if someone put a message that you do not like. There is nothing stopping an opposing group to put their own message.

    If I put an ad on the subway promoting family values, there is nothing stopping anyone from promoting non virtuous values. As long as the message is legal within the law, it should be allowed. This is not to say that people should put hate, treason messages on the metro.

    Ads only reflect society. If a society has no virtuous values, even if safety barriers on everything, people will find a way to hurt others.

    Steve: You probably did not mean to contrast the terms “family values” with “non virtuous”. The former is right-wing code for a lot of things including homophobia. I suspect what you meant to contrast was “virtuous” with “non virtuous”.

    The issue here is not that the ads attack anyone, but that they are insentive to the issue of suicide as a serious mental health problem and to the effects such actions may have on those left behind.

    By the way, the “first amendment” does not apply here, and even “free speech” is constrained by a number of concepts including fair comment, libel and incitement.


  15. Just as a warning, I’m sure this post will come off as insensitive to some (even when it’s not attempting to be) and will most likely be deleted by the moderator.

    Once again we dive into the World of political correctness. Something that was meant to be comical, which I have a hard time believing someone can argue it’s not ignoring the context, has been turned into a serious case of “wrong place, wrong time” when the context is taken into consideration. For one, who is being offended by these?

    I hope no one is attempting to argue these adds will drive someone on the path of suicide to commit the act. So it’s the families that have been affected that we’re concerned about? Okay, there’s some logic to that argument. Not to put my words in their mouths but I’m sure some will conclude there are major social factors at play that need to be addressed regarding a serious problem in our society today and this ad is in no way attempting to make light of that, as it’s just a comedic act.

    What about other similar adds depicting extremely rare situations in humorous ways; getting struck by lightning say. Products getting run over by automobiles … yes there have been adds along these lines unfortunately I can’t remember a specific example. I’m sure many more people have attempted to commit suicide by running into a car then by jumping off a platform or getting pushed for that matter.

    Oh but wait, the radio wasn’t pushed was it? I guess that would warrant a new debate if that’s what was depicted in the add.


  16. I am wondering whether or not they deliberately picked a campaign they knew would offend and generate spin-off publicity. The new V station in Ottawa attracted similar controversy with ads that displayed morose looking pregnant young women under the slogan “Lock up your daughters: The Gods of rock and roll are in town”. Those were pulled after a few weeks too, not after an insignificant amount of local media play…

    Steve: Whether it was deliberate or not, the ads need to be criticized and removed. Suppose that they had chosen a theme of violence or racism? Would we ignore it just to avoid giving them publicity?


  17. “For one, who is being offended by these?”

    Both my parents have witnessed subway suicides. One from the front of the train that hit a suicide, the other from standing near, but ahead of, the suicide on the platform when said suicide jumped. This is something they wouldn’t consider funny. It’s not something they like to be reminded of. There’s enough people out there that have witnessed these things. I consider myself lucky to have not witnessed such.


  18. The street furniture and the terms of it offend me more than this ad does.

    “There is a history in Toronto that whenever a suicide was published, more attempts followed based on the reported event.” Is there any proof of this?

    Steve: Please see the link earlier in the comment thread to the Wikipedia article about copycat suicides. They are well documented in research literature, and I know from personal sources that this has happened here.


  19. Even if you take down the ads, we are still exposed to individuals performing acts that are very inappropriate in public. Some young punk leaning over the tracks saying he wants to end it all is just as bad as seeing that ad. Yet, all the blame goes to advertisers.

    Steve: First of all, I (and Jonathan Goldsbie who wrote the piece on Torontoist) are not blaming advertisers for whatever “some young punk” does in the subway. The advertiser has a choice of what they put in transit shelters, and a contractual responsibility to be sensitive about this. Suicide is alarmingly common by various means, and as has been discussed here at some length, it is not a topic for jokes, certainly not in the transit context. If you turn off your sensitivity filter, yes, the ad is “funny”, even “clever”, but some topics simply are not appropriate material for advertising.


  20. I think invocations of free speech here are beside the point. This isn’t about a government banning commercial expression (itself subject to more limits than non-commercial expression) across the board. It’s about a poor-taste “edgy” ad that should have been rejected by whoever it is at Astral Media with the responsibility for reviewing content for this particular set of sign locations.

    It’s not so much that suicide is an off-limits topic for humour or advertising in all (or even most) contexts, which would be difficult to support; rather, it’s that this ad in this particular context it is unacceptable. The whole campaign plays suicidal ideation (via anthropomorphism) for laughs to shill for pop music, which is in poor taste to begin with, but it’s the inclusion of a subway jumper scenario using a photograph taken in a TTC subway station in ads affixed to bus & streetcar shelters that crosses the line.

    It’s not criminal, and it shouldn’t be banned — but it still ought to be removed. Virgin’s “earned” the exposure it sought, which is a shame, but so be it.


  21. Just curious did you see the article about this in the newspaper, I saw it oddly enough in 24 as I was passing through Sheppard Yonge station on the Sheppard line..

    Steve: Yes. Jeff Gray wrote in the Globe, and the story ran in the national edition. The online comments followed the same pattern seen here and on the Torontoist post, and sadly wound down into the usual polemics about TTC staffing. Nothing like staying on topic.


  22. “Some young punk leaning over the tracks saying he wants to end it all”

    Sorry steve, but as someone who’s faced major mental health problems I have to respond. THIS comment offends me far more than the ad does (which does not offend me that much, I just think it’s not well thought out as it might offend others) The ad does it’s part to try and suggest suicide is not a serious issue, but the sentence above, to me, totally makes light of the mental illness aspect of suicide. When you are faced with mental illness, you cannot think straight, this is not a case of a “young punk” doing something but a serious problem faced by people. Sorry, but this frustrates me a great deal as some people do not seem to ‘get it’


  23. “Steve: Yes. Jeff Gray wrote in the Globe, and the story ran in the national edition. The online comments followed the same pattern seen here and on the Torontoist post, and sadly wound down into the usual polemics about TTC staffing. Nothing like staying on topic.”

    There is this trend that I have noticed in The Globe & Mail, The National/Financial Post, The Toronto Sun, and even the Toronto Star that it seems that every story that involves transit eventually turns into an on-line “bash/blame the workers/union” when the online stories are opened up for comment. I took the time to read through all of the comments to Jeff Gray’s article (I started to feel that I didn’t know what he had written about!). What does a collector sitting in a booth have to do with the City of Toronto/TTC requesting that the ads be pulled from transit shelters? BTW, these ads are still in place on numerous billboards throughout the city.

    I noticed this same trend in the Ottawa newspapers during and (even still) after the OC Transpo strike ended. This trend is also happening with regard to the auto sector situation (GM/Chrysler and UAW/CAW).

    If it is felt that we are being overly sensitive to ads showing suicide in an “edgy” or “frivilous” or “ridiculous” manner, does this open the door to permit spouse abuse or worse? The line has to be drawn somewhere and these ads clearly crossed way over that line.


Comments are closed.