Odd: Downtown East Station Blanketed in Ads Aimed at Suburban Drivers

If you hang around the Downtown East/ex-Metrodome Station for a few minutes while waiting for the train, you might begin to notice the advertising saturating the platform . It’s hard to miss, in part because it’s literally on every flat thing, and in part because it’s so incongruous, because it’s all about cars and suburban life.

It makes some sense that American Family Insurance (the advertiser) would want to market their product by reminding people of what they could stand to lose—and thus what they might want to get insured. It also makes some sense that AFI would decide to target downtown commuters, presumably taking the Blue Line to Park and Ride lots. But their campaign is so startlingly out of sync with the urban environment around the station, it makes you wonder just how exactly it was planned. Why this, why here?



A young, dress-shirted Asian man, coffee in hand, heads out to his car. The rear view mirror shows that he lives in a development of nearly identical white houses. Other photos with the same actors show his wife dutifully waving from the front door.


A man washes/waxes his classic car.


A young couple excitedly throws camping gear into the car in front of their wood-chip landscaped home.

Not pictured, but equally weird:

  • A woman stares at her rugged, bearded husband/boyfriend as he drives his car.

  • A man leans against the back of his car.

  • A woman letting her children out of an SUV to go to soccer practice.

  • (Confusingly) a bag of Telstar soccer balls.

When you’re on the platform take a look at the people waiting for the train. When you get on, see who’s riding. Are they the people toward whom these ads are aimed?


Alex Schieferdecker

About Alex Schieferdecker

Alex Schieferdecker is from New York City, lived in Minnesota for six years, and now lives in Philadelphia. He is still unhealthily invested in Twin Cities politics and development. Please help. His twitter handle is @alexschief.

17 thoughts on “Odd: Downtown East Station Blanketed in Ads Aimed at Suburban Drivers

  1. Michael RodenMichael Roden

    Maybe it’s my Millenial Narcissism, but I’ve always thought these insurance ads in transit spaces were aimed at us – telling us to hurry up and move to the suburbs like they told us we would.

    I would be interested to see if the Suburban Promised Land is advertised in poorer and less upwardly mobile transit nodes as well.

      1. Nathanael

        What’s actually going on is that most advertisers are grossly, grossly incompetent at targeting ads. Basically, 90% of advertising is wasted on the wrong market, due to, really, not thinking about things clearly.

  2. hokan

    I wonder, Alex, why you noted the race of the models in only one of the advertisements. Did I miss the significance?

    1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

      That’s a good question; I’m not entirely sure. I’m happy that you pointed it out. Like many ad campaigns, the actors used were fairly diverse. For example, the actor throwing camping gear into the car was African American. That’s not an accident of course, ad makers obviously are conscious of including different groups especially as America becomes more nonwhite.

      I was particularly struck by the ad featuring the Asian couple, in part because the scene appeared multiple times in several different forms. As I mentioned in the article, a different photo shows a somewhat stereotypical scene where the man walks to his car while his wife watches him from the porch. Other scenes, for example, the white man washing his car, have fairly few other details. That’s perhaps why I went into more detail for that scene, but I have to recognize that there’s no real reason why I included the race of the actors in that scene and not the others. There really isn’t any significance to it.

      Thank you again for pointing it out.

  3. Rosa

    Grass is always greener syndrome? McDonalds is really good at advertising generally, and this summer they had billboards along I-94 about getting a McDonalds coffee to ride your bike, and pushing a location “near the Greenway!”

  4. Biffy

    I’m thinking the DT East station is a major hub for commuters from the ‘burbs? anybody riding the blue line up from MOA transfers at that station to go to Vikings and Gophers games on the Greenie. I did it just yesterday and saw these ads. I’m thinking that was the strategy there – eyeballs

  5. Julie Kosbab

    Okay. So I buy media. I don’t do billboards and outdoor much in the modern age, but I have done them.

    The rationale for this kind of placement:
    1. Outdoor is CHEAP. Seriously, cheap.
    2. Outdoor is generally sold in packages by the controller of the placements.
    3. This is a major transit hub, and reasonably speaking, many of the people passing through probably have cars. Many have homes, and the multi-policy discount does apply to renter’s insurance as well. Outdoor is generally also judged by the traffic volume that passes it daily, and transit platforms are attractive because people stand on them, not just pass by them.
    4. This is chiefly a branding campaign, because it’s being run through corporate. In insurance, the agents are semi-independent. These ads do not direct to specific agents and are part of a national campaign, and match up with the creative for other national buys (TV time, magazine runs).

    1. Julie Kosbab

      Also, FWIW, I know plenty of Minneapolis homeowners who also own cars who don’t use them to commute every day, but who are hopefully insuring them in compliance with the law. (And I bet their mortgage lenders are like mine, and insist on homeowner’s insurance.)

      1. Eric

        The more I think about this the more it troubles me. Not just because it laughably asserts that a certain class of commuters would have no use for insurance or projects a narrow worldview on a pretty garden variety mass-market ad campaign. I mean those reasons too. But in large art because it gives too much credence to the unhelpful and overly simplistic notion that everyone belongs to one of two mutually exclusive groups of people who use transit to get to/from downtown and “suburban drivers”. The satirist writers of “Portlandia” would struggle to do a better caricature of the new urbanist mindset than what is written here.

        When we build a wall between us and the entire class of people of which we perceive presently disagree with us, the pool of people we’ve left to convince gets very small.

        1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

          Hmmm, I think you may have read more into this than is there, or perhaps I should have written more to clarify how I felt about these ads.

          I certainly understand the target audience for these ads, and Julie expands upon in her two posts why they chose this particular method. I get that. Obvious the Downtown East Station is the key transfer point between the northbound Blue Line and the westbound Green Line.

          Perhaps these ads are “garden variety”, but they certainly caught my attention. Perhaps not yours. I was just struck by the wholehearted embrace of very stereotypical suburban images and their placement in a location that is (with the massive construction and the train) very urban. The two sets of images clashed in my mind. That does not mean that people from the suburbs and people from the city are somehow two different species. But the landscapes are very different, and that seemed very jarring to me. Again, perhaps not to you, that may be because our lived experiences are different in some way.

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      I think another element is to grab their mindshare before they need to make a choice. Someone who does not currently own a house or car sees these ads for years on end and when they do decide to purchase they’ve got a bit of an automatic first choice (to investigate) stuck in their head.

      And then there are the crusty old folks like me who’ve grown to really dislike the mass overabundance of ads everywhere and associate any name on them with bad.

    3. Nathanael

      “This is chiefly a branding campaign, ”

      Do you mean a name recognition campaign?

      In a pure name recognition campaign, little or no attention is paid to the actual content of the ads. It’s all about getting the name out there. So that when someone thinks “I need insurance”, the first company name they think of is Allstate, and so they google Allstate.

      In a branding campaign, you want to be a lot more careful what you associate your brand with. “Allstate is for suburbanites with cars, NOT for light rail riders” is the branding message coming out of this campaign, and that’s really a pretty questionable branding.

      By contrast, I saw one ads for car insurance in Chicago which showed the actor lovingly leaving his car in his garage as he walks to the rail station… the line was something like “You protect your car by not taking it to work… you should also protect it with good insurance”…

      1. Nathanael

        For an interesting example, Merrill Lynch has extremely successful name recognition, and keeps doing name recognition campaigns.

        Merrill Lynch’s brand is trash, because the company’s business model is basically to defraud their clients, and everyone who knows anything about them knows it. They don’t even *try* to change their branding. They try to catch new clients who don’t know anything about them using name recognition campaigns.

  6. Erik B

    Very thought provoking post. Maybe I’m reading too much into this but smattering public space with these types of images remind me of Marxist ideas of false/class consciousness.

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