Friday, April 9, 2010

Visual Ideologies in Pro-Life and Pro-Choice advertisements on city buses - why the bus?

Before 1988, abortion in Canada was highly controlled, and advertisements dealing with abortion were a non-factor. However, western society has drifted from traditional and religious values towards one of individualism with an emphasis on personal choice. This ideological shift is evident in matters of abortion, and since R. v. Morgentaler, 1 SCR 30 (1988), Canada has been devoid of laws governing abortion. Because of this change, and because abortion is fundamentally a two sided issue, advertisements advocating pro-choice pro-life have become more commonplace. One such medium for advertising exists on public transit.

With an increase in both the extensiveness of public transit and its ridership, advertisements on buses and LRT's have become a means to advertise issues of abortion. Two years ago, Edmonton's public transit recorded a ridership, reoccurring riders included, of over 66 million people (Edmonton Transit System 2010). The sheer number of people these advertisements reach is a testament to their potential effectiveness. Yet their true power is much less obvious. Transit riders are essentially a captive audience. An advertisement on a bus has access to a person's gaze for an average of 30-40 minutes (Kobliski 2005). One can argue that the audience may simply choose to avert their eyes, but transit offers little else for visual stimulation. Interestingly, riders have commented that they welcome subway ads, and that these help them avoid uncomfortable eye contact with other passengers (Simon 2008).

More importantly, advertisements on public transit allow access to an important demographic. Transit ridership has been shown to consist more of lower income households (Garrett and Taylor 1999) and, importantly for issues of abortion, more women (American Public Transit Association 2007). It has already been shown that women of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to get an abortion (Jones, Darroch, and Henshaw 2002). Have these advertisements been designed and placed to purposely target a specific demographic? We hoped to answer this question.

By: Alyssa Baker, Stuart Dow, Laurie Ogata, Joe Wang


American Public Transportation Association. 2007. A profile of public transportation passenger demographics and travel characteristics reported in on-board surveys. Washington DC: American Public Transportation Association.

Edmonton Transit System. 2010. ETS statistics for 2006-2009.

Garret, Mark and Brian Taylor. 1999. Reconsidering social equity in public transit. Berkeley Planning Journal 13: 6-27.

Jones, Rachel K, Darroch, Jacqueline E, and Stanley K Henshaw. 2002. Patterns in the socioeconomic characteristics of women obtaining abortions in 2000-2001. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 34(5): 226-235.

Kobliski, Kathy J. 2005. the advantages of transit advertising. Entrepreneur, May 18.

R v. Morgentaler, 1 SCR 30, (2d 1988).

Simon, Michele. 2008. Reducing youth exposure to alcohol ads: Targeting public transit. Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 85(4): 506-516.

Statistics Canada. 2010. Pregnancy outcomes by age groups.

Statistics Canada. 2005. Induced abortion Statistics. http://

Struken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. 2009. Practises of looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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