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Controversial See their Side ad campaign officially scrapped by Transport for London

London’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner Will Norman also confirmed that he was not involved in the consultation process for the £1 million campaign and that he “wasn’t a fan” of the ad

Transport for London representatives announced yesterday that the controversial ‘See their Side’ advertising campaign, which sparked an online backlash last year over claims of “victim-blaming” and promoting a “false equivalence” among road users, has been officially stopped.

The advertising campaign, which had a planned spend of almost £1 million, featured an angry altercation after a driver's car and a cyclist almost make contact. The inner monologues of both the driver and cyclist in the video show that they realise they have "scared" each other, leading to new-found empathy between the pair. 

The advert was met with fierce criticism on social media for suggesting that the driver's fear of an angry cyclist from the relative safety of their car seat is equivalent to a cyclist's fear of almost being killed or seriously injured, and that all road users should share equal responsibility for incidents.

> Reaction as Transport for London pauses See their Side ad campaign following backlash

It was also noted that the position of the cyclist's foot centimetres away from the car 10 seconds into the clip implies that the driver likely committed an offence by overtaking the cyclist too closely. 

tfl ad close pass screenshot

Following this backlash, the campaign was “paused” at the beginning of December. However, it was later revealed that a TfL official asked VCCP, the agency responsible for the video, if they could digitally amend the advert to remove evidence of the dangerous overtake.

A VCCP executive also expressed concern that they were “bowing to the minority” by suspending the campaign, despite TfL’s own research indicating that the reaction to it was “very negative”. A TfL official even said that they were confident the ad would be “back on air in January.”

However, that has not proved the case and in yesterday’s committee meeting of the London Assembly it was announced that the campaign had officially been stopped.

Will Norman, the Mayor of London's Walking and Cycling Commissioner, confirmed in the meeting that he wasn't consulted at any stage of the process and did not actually see the advert before it was published. Instead, the campaign was signed off by two customer directors and TfL's Head of Customer Marketing and Behaviour Change following "engagement with some 27 external organisations." 

When asked whether the problem with the scrapped campaign centred on the advert itself or simply the reaction to it, Norman replied, “No, I did not see the advert before it went out, and I wasn’t a fan of it when I did.”

Defending the intent behind the advertisement, the Chief Safety, Health and Environment Officer for TfL Lilli Matson said that it “was quite carefully researched beforehand. The whole point of the advert is that it is not clear if anyone is at fault. All you see is a nasty altercation, and the whole point is that it has both participants reflecting on it.

“I did see the advert before it went out, and I did comment on it and we made some changes to it.”

Despite the overwhelmingly negative response, Matson also claimed that during follow-up research conducted by TfL many focus group participants had a “light bulb” moment concerning the advert’s aim to promote “empathy and recognition” amongst all road users.

> "Bowing to the minority": TfL official wanted to revive suspended £1 million See their Side ad campaign by digitally altering it

However, she admitted that the ad “didn’t have the stakeholder reaction that we wanted, which muddied the very issue we were trying to do.”

“Trying to intervene in something as complex as road safety culture is a very difficult thing. It was quite a brave attempt to try to do this.

"We don’t think the advert was effective ultimately, so we’ve stopped it. But it was trying to do something new, trying to generate awareness and empathy. We need to look at it and try to learn from it.”

Despite his objections to the campaign, Norman stressed that the negative response to the advert should not prevent TfL from grappling with difficult issues surrounding road users’ attitudes.

“We have to tackle the culture on London’s roads,” he said. “We’ve done an awful lot of marketing around behaviour, in terms of speeding, drink driving and all those things.

“But there is still a culture of ‘everyone in it for themselves’. It’s a huge challenge and we have to be able to think innovatively and differently about this.

“Clearly the reaction to this advert isn’t what anybody would have wanted. It has been stopped, but I still believe we need to do work on how we change the culture on London’s roads.

“I wouldn’t want the issues that happened with that advert to affect the team’s ability to address what is a really challenging problem.”

Norman also said that the fall out from the advert has led to the implementation of a new, more collaborative system when it comes to producing campaigns on road safety and culture in London.

Ryan joined as a news writer in December 2021. He has written about cycling and some ball-centric sports for various websites, newspapers, magazines and radio. Before returning to writing about cycling full-time, he completed a PhD in History and published a book and numerous academic articles on religion and politics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (though he remained committed to boring his university colleagues and students with endless cycling trivia). He can be found riding his bike very slowly through the Dromara Hills of Co. Down.

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