Transit organizations hope to strike a nostalgic chord with riders

In a fun bit of advertising synergy, two Toronto transit organizations are using rewritten versions of popular easy-listening songs from the 1960s and ’70s as part of their efforts to lure customers back. The campaigns come as the city’s residents begin to return to public transit after more than 18 months away.

The Toronto Transit Commission is using a rewritten version of John Sebastian’s 1976 hit “Welcome Back” (best known as the theme song to the ’70s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter) in a six-week campaign welcoming riders back to its service. Meanwhile, Metrolinx turned to the John Denver song “Leaving On a Jet Plane,” also with updated lyrics, to promote its UP Express service from downtown to Toronto Pearson Airport.

Both are pleasantly upbeat songs, so it’s no surprise they’ve been in brand spots more than once over the years.

British Airways used “Leaving…” in a 2006 spot that was one of the first for the brand by BBH London, while Variety noted in a 2020 article that “Welcome Back” had become the “unofficial reopening anthem for a pandemic-plagued world” after its use by brands including Decathlon, Applebees, PSEG Long Island and Major League Baseball when things began to (prematurely) open up last year.

Created by Publicis Toronto, the TTC campaign featuring “Welcome Back” is running through mid-November across Toronto-area TV channels, as well as digital out-of-home and TSAs. It’s also running in ethnic digital media in Chinese, Tamil, Farsi, Urdu and Spanish.

“The broader campaign is designed to let everyone know that the TTC is still here for them when they are ready to visit any of the city’s great attractions, go out for dinner, see a show, explore the city or visit with friends,” said TTC spokesperson Stuart Green via email. “We wanted people to see the friendly faces of our staff and know that we are taking extra precautions in order to make them feel safe and comfortable on the TTC.”

After TTC ridership fell to as low as 15% of pre-pandemic levels in the spring of 2020, it has slowly crept back to nearly 50%, said Green.

The campaign’s 60-second anchor spot (there are also 30- and 15-second versions) opens with an aerial shot of the downtown Toronto skyline looking east from the Dundas/Lansdowne area, followed by a sun-dappled streetcar.

It feels like a deliberate homage to the opening credits of a ’70s or ’80s-era sitcom, which tended to use recognizable landmarks from the city in which they were set (see The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, Full House, etc. etc.)

The spot then cuts to TTC employees and passengers singing “Welcome Back,” with reworked lyrics like “But the trains have all changed since you’ve been around/we’ve arranged it so they’re safer now” and “We’re back on track/and together at last.” The spot also features a cameo by Toronto mayor John Tory.

Meanwhile, Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” was at the top of the organization’s wish list right from the very beginning, both because of its tie-in with the brand and its broad-based appeal, said Metrolinx’s chief marketing officer, Mark Childs. “The song just nails it,” he said.

The accompanying spot from Rethink, “Keep Your Trip on Track,” contrasts the stress-free service offered by the UP Express with some of the unexpected scenarios that can await people who use alternatives to get to the airport—from being stuck in a traffic jam, to an engine blowout, to being burdened with a partner who insists on waiting until the last minute to pack. The spot is anchored by the mournful refrain “I’m not leaving on a jet plane.”

“The insights are so relatable and true,” said Childs. “You know what it’s like to be sitting in a traffic or a cab or a ride share, not sure if you’re actually going to make your flight.”

The campaign launched with a pair of radio ads presented as UP Express traffic reports, with the traffic reporter telling listeners there is nothing but open track all the way to the airport. “In all my years as a traffic reporter, I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says.

The video is being supported by digital billboards along major Toronto highways that use actual flight numbers to present messages to motorists. One reads “Supposed to be on Flight AC984 to Los Angeles? Maybe you should have taken the UP.”

UP Express ridership increased by 122% between August 2020 and 2021, a welcome surge in riders for an organization that, after the struggles of the past year-and-a-half, had no doubt been wondering when they’d be back again.


Chris Powell