Mayor banks on marketers to calm road rage over tolls

Congestion charges for London have got the go-ahead and now the mayor is on the hunt for an agency that can make the unpopular tolls seem more palatable.

The green light may have been given to the Mayor of London Ken Livingstone’s congestion scheme and to the toll road around north Birmingham, but drivers have yet to be convinced of the merits of paying for road access.

These schemes represent the start of an era when travelling by car will no longer be free. Highways are becoming more crowded, and there simply is not the space to build more roads or lanes on motorways.

The problem facing the Government, local councils and road construction companies is how to convince the public they are not getting a raw deal. To do this they are enlisting the help of advertising agencies.

BMP DDB, Euro RSCG and TBWA/London are waiting to find out if their proposals for a £25m advertising campaign have caught the attention of Lesley McLeod, the acting director of communications for Transport for London (TfL), the transport arm of the Greater London Authority. Whoever wins, will have the task of explaining how and why people are to be charged £5 a day just for driving through the centre of their city.

The final campaign will have a public information film feel to it, because of the density and complexity of the information that has to be conveyed. Drivers will have to be told that there will be 230 cameras strategically placed on the 174 entry points to the centre of London. These cameras will automatically read number plates and the car’s details will be fed through to a central computer, which can automatically tell if the driver has paid his toll. A fine of £80 will be levied against anyone who has not paid the toll, and this figure will rise to £120 for further late payment.

A spokesman for TfL says: “We are looking at a huge public information campaign that has got to get across things like who’s affected, how and when to pay and the times the charging zone is in force.

“The majority of people who are going to be affected live in London and the South-east, but having said that, we are also aware that we need to target [drivers of] hire cars, those using the Channel Tunnel and people coming to the UK by ferry.

“We are conscious that we are stepping up a gear from listening to informing. It will be a massive campaign to make sure that the scheme has the highest profile.”

In contrast, the agencies lining up to create an integrated campaign for the M6 Toll Road – formerly the Birmingham Northern Relief Road – face a slightly different problem. Unlike the London congestion charges, which will be compulsory, motorists will be able to decide whether to use the 27-mile road or save money and get stuck in jams.

Tom Fanning, the managing director of Midlands Expressway, the private company in charge of the project, says he wants his campaign to heighten awareness of the toll road and stress how much time can be saved on journeys. He is aware that road users will want to know why they should pay a reported £2.50 for a “service” they can use free via another route.

“The challenge will be to show road users that the time and energy saved – especially in rush hour – will more than offset the toll paid. What we are trying to do is give people an alternative. It’s about changing people’s attitudes,” says Fanning. The campaign, he adds, needs to target a number of different markets including heavy goods vehicles, large and small fleets and trade associations.

He declines to comment on the tone of the advertising, but says: “We will be going ahead with a marketing campaign that will be good fun and informative.”

But unlike the toll road, which will use the tried-and-tested system of booths to collect payment, Livingstone’s plans for London are virtually unused elsewhere in the world. As with most untried computer technology, there is rich potential for a PR disaster. Screaming headlines in newspapers of tales of drivers who have been wrongly charged seem inevitable.

There are several cities around the world that have introduced congestion charges including Singapore, Melbourne in Australia, and Trondheim in Norway. These have all used pre-paid smart cards that are displayed on car windscreens and are state-monitored. However, Trondheim’s scheme is now such a way of life, the city is having to consider other ways of preventing people travelling to its centre by car.

The agencies pitching for the TfL congestion charges brief have taken different approaches, according to industry insiders. One idea is humorous, one is serious and one lies somewhere in the middle. Any humour used in such a campaign will have to be conveyed with care – an amusing slogan could come back to haunt Livingstone if the scheme proves to be a disaster.

Funny or not, the advertising campaign will have to convey a very complex message to every demographic sector. For instance, disabled people are exempt from the charge, those resident within the charging zone will be eligible to a 90 per cent discount, as will those who run vehicles on alternative fuel such as electricity, gas or fuel cell.

It will also be free of charge to drive in central London between 6pm and 7am and at weekends. Companies will be able to buy advance tickets for staff who have company spaces, but they will not be eligible for a price reduction. It will also be possible to pay the congestion charge on the Internet and in newsagents.

If Livingstone is serious about getting people out of cars and on to public transport, then he would be wise to do something about the poor image of London’s buses. Not only are they perceived to be irregular, they are also slow. Insiders claim that the mayor is plotting more campaigns highlighting London’s bus service.

Edward Lister, Tory leader of Wandsworth Borough Council, which borders the charging zone, says: “I’m sure the advertising for congestion charges will be very good, creative and well designed, but I’m also sure it is not going to give people facts and information.

“All the marketing in the world isn’t going to help if, on day one, the buses are still running late.”

Camden council is largely supportive of the scheme, but a spokeswoman says that information must be the key to any campaign. “There’s a lot of fear about how it is going to work,” she says.

In a country that has traditionally provided free road travel funded through a universal road tax, the task of getting people to pay to drive their cars on certain roads is inevitably going to be an up-hill struggle.

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