U.S.: Is Amtrak advertising too warm and fuzzy or even necessary?

The California Zephyr at Book Cliffs, near Thompson Springs, Utah in May 2021, combining the beauty of the scenic countryside with a striking image of the train. Wikimedia Commons photo.

By Russ Jackson, Guest Commentator; December 30, 2022

Editor’s Note: Russ Jackson taught broadcast advertising at a California college and has been an active rail advocate for over 40 years. – Corridorrail.com Editor

There are two different types of advertising message. One is to motivate the customer to quick action, the other is a more generalized “institutional acceptance” of the advertiser and its message is to establish or improve its image hoping the viewer will remember them. Arguably, a third is to do both.

Classic Winchell’s Donut House promotional image. Winchell’s photo.

An example of a motivational ad was for Winchell’s Donut House years ago. Winchell’s, “Home of the Warm ‘n Fresh Donut®,” is the West Coast’s largest donut chain with over 170 units, in 6 states, plus locations in Guam, and Saipan. Their TV spots showed only a counter of warm donuts ready to eat; nothing else. Within minutes store owners would see people running into their stores to buy donuts. We’re selling train travel here, not donuts.

Screenshot of a 2022 Amtrak advertisement.

On November 2, 2022, Ad Age magazine provided a glimpse at Amtrak’s new TV spot that aired on CBS This Morning, the lowest rated morning show and likely the least expensive to buy time in. Ad Age estimated its cost was $73,343. The ad’s theme was home for the holidays with “warm and fuzzy” shots of happy folks riding inside trains. The narrator says, “The magic of the train is more than how it takes us away. It’s how it brings us together.”  The final title shot says, “Just an Amtrak away,” which is also used on some print and internet ads. Nice thoughts, but which ad caught your eye? Which one tells you what the ad is “selling”?

Okay, let’s look at what advertising messages for a passenger transportation company could be like, if they have been out of the public eye for a long time as Amtrak has because of the pandemic. Denver, Colorado, is a large community served by Amtrak, and Fort Morgan is 60 miles east of Denver and has had rail passenger service for generations.

Fort Morgan, Colorado train station, built by the CB&Q in 1922. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Fort Morgan, Colorado. County population, 28,000. Every morning Mike Jensen takes his camera to the train station to record the arrival of the westbound California Zephyr, which is due around 5 AM. He shows the world on the internet that the train arrived and how many passengers get on or off. Where are those folks going? Mike reports when he knows, some are going to Denver but most beyond to Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction, or even the West Coast. Folks arriving there are coming from anywhere east of there. There were 3,473 riders in 2019, or almost 10 per day between westbound Train 5 and its eastbound counterpart, Train 6. Those riders don’t need advertising to tell them about the train. That station has been there since it was built by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad in 1922.

Denver Union Station’s iconic roof sign. Russ Jackson photo.

Denver, Colorado. Population over 700,000 and a Metro area of almost 3 million. From the one Union Station in downtown Denver, ridership on the California Zephyr in 2019 was 143,947. Many of those riders were intrastate, coming and going from the ski areas. From an advertising standpoint what should Amtrak be talking about in Denver? Warm and Fuzzy? Or, What is Amtrak?  Where does it go?  When does it go?  Why should I take the train?  How much does it cost?  Amtrak should be concerned about its advertising reach and frequency, or how many people see it and how often.

Amtrak’s first Superliners entering service in 1979 was a very big deal. Based on the successful designs and concepts of the Santa Fe’s Hi-Levels built for the El Capitan in the 1950s and 60s, Superliners introduced an entire new way to travel to many passengers. In 1979, the world was a lot less colorful when it came to printing. This ad for the Empire Builder used black ink plus blue and red inks which required three passes through a printing press, but no expensive color photograph printing press negatives and plates. Internet image.
Early 1980s promotional poster for the City of New Orleans. Internet image.

Market-specific advertising in Colorado’s huge market should not only have local background visuals but narration about destinations like the ski areas, yes, but how about Chicago or the West Coast. You can get there on the train, and it leaves Denver in the morning going West and evening going East. Onboard, you can relax with snacks and drinks in the Sightseer Lounge and have Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner in the Diner. Take the train because there isn’t the hassle of an airport or being locked-in on the Interstate.  How much it costs to ride depends on where you are going, but if you take a Sleeping car, all of your meals are included. On print ads display Coach fares from Denver to Omaha or Reno, etc., not just the end-point cities.

The California Zephyr at Denver Union Station in 2016. Russ Jackson photo.

Denver station is busy at train time. While the Fort Morgan folks don’t need “selling,” there are millions in the Denver area who have never heard of Amtrak or have ever considered making it a travel choice. Future Colorado ads must BE SPECIFIC: A Southern Pacific ad decades ago was self-explanatory: Next time try the train. That should now be Next time you travel from Denver take Amtrak’s California Zephyr train. 

A Southern Pacific Railroad billboard in 1937 perhaps calls out to the two hitchhikers making their way on foot down the highway. Internet photo.
In June 1970 Seaboard Coast Line had a similar message to Southern Pacific’s in the photo above this photo on a billboard in Richmond, Virginia advertising its New York to Florida passenger train service. Internet photo.

Have you looked at Amtrak’s webpage, Amtrak.com?  Rail Advocates know what we want and have no trouble looking through the site to find what we want to know and/or buy tickets. What about those who want to find out what Amtrak is all about? What about those who never heard of Amtrak? Let’s say someone like that finds the website, what should be found? What, and how much. Look at the website now; they have some beautifully designed illustrated descriptions, but the first thing you see is buy tickets, which is so poorly designed that if you want to buy, the steps are disjointed. The website first page should have five link choices:

File illustration.

What is Amtrak and where do the trains go?  

When do the trains go and what is onboard? 

Buy tickets now  

On-time information for currently running trains

About Amtrak

These questions should be followed by Enjoy the trip not just the going!   

The Coast Starlight at Cuesta Grade near San Luis Obispo, California. Chris Mohs photo.

Amtrak advertising right now on some routes would be useless, because Amtrak is not increasing seating capacity on the long distance/inter-regional trains. What seats they have are being filled by people who already know about them; many trains are sold out, and there is no chance additional seats are being added to accommodate even current demand. Amtrak needs a GROWTH attitude that will permit expansion of service capacity by adding cars nationwide not just in the Northeast Corridor, but out here in “flyover country” where each ticket is more productive. “Even if a train runs full every day it is so small that it cannot generate enough revenue to sustain itself,” said Andrew Selden. Until then Warm and Fuzzy is all the advertising they need to do because it helps keep the country’s eye on the company, but it must say What Amtrak Is not Enchanting Travel or Just an Amtrak Away.

Amfleet promotional post card, circa 1975. Wikimedia Commons image.
Metroliner promotional poster, circa 1973. Internet image.
New York City 1999 vertical billboard promoting Amtrak’s new Acela service, about to debut in 2000. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Early 1970s Amtrak promotional coupon found in opportunity places such as VHS tape cartons. In the days of high technology like AM and FM radio and emerging color television, this type of blanket promotion was popular. The individual boxes to fill in letter by letter more likely were designed to handle only the amount of information which could be fed into a computer line file (Probably on a punch card which the operator could not fold, spindle or mutilate. If you don’t know what that means, ask your grandparents.). Wikimedia Commons photo.
Town & Country Magazine early 1970s Turboliner ad. Note that Amtrak labeled itself “America’s Nationwide Rail Passenger System.” Internet image.
New York Central heavily advertised its onboard ambiance and amenities. 1952 magazine ad. Internet image.
The Saturday Evening Post, 1956. Northern Pacific Railway knew its Vista-Dome North Coast Limited was its main passenger train selling point to tourists and passengers from all over the country. Internet image.
The Santa Fe sold glamor, elegance and superior service, including the famed Turquoise Room in the Super Chief’s Pleasure Dome in this 1951 magazine ad. Internet image.
Santa Fe knew the Super Chief and Chief weren’t for everyone, and this 1960 newspaper advertisement for the Hi-Level El Capitan promoting The Most Luxurious Coach Service in America offered coach service from Chicago to Los Angeles for $66.12 per passenger. Internet image.
A post-war, late 1940s magazine ad from Pullman-Standard Car Manufacturing Company of Chicago promoted the railroads which had purchased its passenger cars. Internet image.
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