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

FOI request reveals TfL official suggested altering "geography" to make it look like cyclist had not been close passed, while agency executive said they were "gutted" at ad's suspension...

The highly controversial 'See their Side' advertising campaign from Transport for London (TfL) that was halted following a backlash last month had a planned spend of almost £1 million, and a TfL official wanted to revive it by removing evidence the driver in the campaign video had close passed the cyclist, FOI requests have revealed. 

The advert, which can still be viewed here, shown an angry altercation between a driver and cyclist after the driver's car and the cyclist almost make contact. The inner monologues of both show that they realise they have "scared" each other, and the two each ask each other if they are ok. 

This was met with fierce criticism, however, for suggesting 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. The position of the cyclist's foot centimetres away from the car 10 seconds into the clip also implies that the driver likely committed an offence by overtaking the cyclist too closely. 

> Highway Code changes aimed at protecting cyclists to become law next month

tfl ad close pass screenshot

A freedom of information request submitted by transport journalist Carlton Reid, who reported on his findings for Forbes here, asked to see the brief for the advert and all communications between TfL and ad agency VCCP discussing the aftermath following the advert's publication on YouTube.

While the brief appeared to show worthwhile intentions, stating that it wanted VCCP to promote “cycling rather than the car", the request reveals that Will Norman, the Mayor of London's Walking and Cycling Commissioner, wasn't consulted at any stage and didn't sign the campaign off. 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." 

In the email chain discussing the fallout, a TfL official whose name was redacted emailed VCCP to say that one of the biggest complaints received about the ad was that the driver appeared to have committed a close pass offence against the cyclist. The official then asked VCCP how much it would cost to "edit this slightly not to show the geography", and how quickly could it be done. 

> Why does do Near Miss of the Day? 

The VCCP executive replied saying it would take a week, but so far a new version of the ad has not surfaced. The last email in the thread from a TfL official says they are confident the ad would be "back on air in January", and the VCCP executive says they are "gutted" the ad was paused.

The same executive also said they were "bowing to the minority" by removing the ad; even though TfL's research on how the ad was performing shown it had 0% positive engagement, and the sentiment towards it was "very negative." 

Another FOI request asked how much was paid to the agency to create the ad, and how much media spend was allocated broken down by type of broadcast medium. 

Before explaining that TfL's research involved psychologists, police, road safety managers and PR officials and a "cultural analysis" of literature, social media and more than 100 adverts over two decades, it was revealed VCCP was paid £383,119.39 for its work on the advert. 

The total planned media spend was £548,677.92, meaning TfL had planned to spend almost £1 million on the campaign in total. When the ad was paused, TfL changed the advert to another 'Road Danger Reduction' campaign to recoup some of the costs, reducing the media spend to £318,702. 

The amount of money spent on a campaign that was quickly suspended during tough financial times for TfL hasn't gone unnoticed, with the AA's president Edmund King calling for "effective and well researched campaigns to enhance safety for all road users." 

Although the campaign's suspension appears to be permanent, TfL still insists the ad campaign is "paused", with a spokesperson telling in a statement: 

“We’re committed to Vision Zero and the elimination of all deaths and serious injuries from London’s roads. That’s why we consistently invest in safer junctions, protected cycle routes, lower speed limits and other important work to make London’s streets safer for everyone.

“The aim of this campaign was to challenge the sometimes divergent nature of London’s road culture and to encourage all road users to be more empathetic when travelling. We know that people walking and cycling are much more vulnerable on the roads than other groups of road users, and this campaign was not designed to suggest otherwise.

“We have paused the ‘See their side’ ad campaign and remain committed to improving the road culture in London and reducing road danger.”

Arriving at in 2017 via 220 Triathlon Magazine, Jack dipped his toe in most jobs on the site and over at eBikeTips before being named the new editor of in 2020, much to his surprise. His cycling life began during his students days, when he cobbled together a few hundred quid off the back of a hard winter selling hats (long story) and bought his first road bike - a Trek 1.1 that was quickly relegated to winter steed, before it was sadly pinched a few years later. Creatively replacing it with a Trek 1.2, Jack mostly rides this bike around local cycle paths nowadays, but when he wants to get the racer out and be competitive his preferred events are time trials, sportives, triathlons and pogo sticking - the latter being another long story.  

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