A New VISA Ad Shows How Flipping the Script Could Help Us Save the Planet

Visa Bike Ad Photo.JPG

Shown above: This September Visa launched a new ad featuring a bike riding barber.

In the 10 largest U.S. cities, the number of people riding a bike to work has grown significantly over the past decade. But even with more people on bikes, riding a bike is still seen as an athletic pursuit, a political statement, or a sign that you’re either a child or very poor.

In a world where driving is the “normal” way to get around, people on bikes are seen as heroes, mashochists or disadvantaged, and decidedly not part of the mainstream.

A new ad for the Capital One Quicksilver VISA card neatly flips that script. The ad shows a young barber who travels from client to client by bike. He arrives to cut hair in an apartment, on a front porch, in an office, even beside a basketball court in a park. His clients pay with a quick tap of their VISA card on the mobile card reader plugged into his smartphone.

His choice of transportation symbolizes simplicity, ease and convenience. He’s not going for a cardio workout, taking a stand for the environment, or struggling to get by. Riding a bike is part of how he does his job. His bike is simple. The neighborhoods where he rides and the locations where he cuts hair are everyday places (with hardly a car to be seen). He doesn’t wear cycling clothes, he doesn’t break a sweat, and he never stops looking good. He makes it look easy.

Sure, he’s an exception. Who doesn’t dream of having a job like his? But the only really exceptional thing about this portrayal of bicycling is how normal it all seems.

In the last shot, he rides away under the VISA tagline “Where would you like to be?" On that bike, living that life, the ad tells us. The symbolism works so well that if you didn’t know this was an ad for a credit card, you might think it was advertising a car-free lifestyle.

This ad is hardly the first one to use a bike as a prop. For more than a decade, advertisers beyond the bike industry have been using bikes as the signifiers of youth, health and a green sensibility.

For 11 years I handled communications and media for two organizations that advocate for bicycle transportation, and like many peer organizations, these are the images and messaging we traded in, albeit with significantly lower production values. Our efforts typically reached hundreds or maybe thousands of people, most of whom already ride.

By contrast, the VISA ad could reach millions of people, including some who already ride but also many people who drive but might wish they could be riding (and have never heard of a bicycle advocacy organization). Those millions of people will see a world where bicycling is attractively normal. As a bike advocate, I could only dream of having that kind of reach. That’s the value of communicating through mainstream media channels.

Of course nobody will start riding a bike because of this ad. That’s not why it was created. But just imagine if it were.

As the sense of urgency about climate change rises, normalizing bicycle transportation for a mainstream audience has never been more important. In California, 41% of all climate-changing greenhouse gases are generated by the transportation sector, with 29% coming from cars. It’s the single largest source of GHGs. Academics, planners and air quality regulators all agree that we cannot reach our GHG reduction goals without getting a lot more people on bikes.

What might change if advertisers like VISA and Capital One and agencies like TBWA Worldwide and BBDO Worldwide, the creative teams behind this ad, used high-quality visual storytelling to engage millions of people about climate change and the need to drive less? How could they help spark the demand for streets and neighborhoods where people can travel by bike safely and conveniently? (BBDO New York did this for gun control, by helping create the intensely haunting “Back-to-School Essentials” PSA).

Those are the tools the auto industry harnessed nearly 100 years ago to create and sustain the demand for driving. In the 1920s, automakers successfully used advertising to invent the crime of jaywalking, transform the popular image of cars as an urban menace, and assert their dominance on the road. The success of that effort led to generations of myth-making about cars and gave us entire cities designed to serve those myths. Today we’re finally starting to confront the disastrous consequences for the environment.

There’s a far more hopeful story to be told about bicycling and its potential to help us save the planet. VISA is showing us one way to tell it.

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Jim Brown is a community activist who uses words and photography to explore the intersections of mobility, sustainability, community and justice. He formerly led Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates and managed communications for the California Bicycle Coalition. You can reach him at jimbrown95818@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @jimbrown95818.