Wisconsin’s millennial-recruiting pitch falls flat

By Eric Sundquist

Here at SSTI Central in Wisconsin, we enjoy a good-natured joke at our southern neighbors’ expense. But now it’s the Flatlanders’ turn to laugh, at a new Cheesehead State ad campaign, which turns out to be about as hapless as Jay Cutler’s QB career.

The campaign features videos and billboards, often showing sad-looking Chicago transit riders. Many are plastered on CTA trains and station walls.

Problem is, the ads are aimed at a demographic group that seems much more interested in urban living—including traveling by transit—than its Xer older siblings or Boomer parents. As the Wall Street Journal reported:

One ad in Chicago shows exhausted train riders spending an hour commuting versus a quick drive on a Wisconsin highway. The extra time allows Wisconsin professionals to spend more time with their kids playing ball, having drinks with friends or kayaking on a lake, the ad argues.

That pitch didn’t resonate with Patrick Grimaldi, a 26 year-old lawyer who lives in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago and saw the ad while riding the L’s Brown Line.

“One of the things I like about this city is that I don’t have to have a car,” said Mr. Grimaldi. “I don’t want to sit in my car. That sounds terrible.”

A reporter from the Chicago Reader got similar responses:

“I love the CTA,” said preschool teacher DeAdra Estelle, 29, on the Armitage platform. “I don’t have a car, and my commute is pretty easy.” She thinks the ads are funny….

On the Belmont platform, [environmental engineer Marta Grabowski] told me the el factored into her decision to take her current job instead of one in a city with no rapid transit. “I don’t think [the ads are] going to persuade millennials to leave Chicago. I think young people, especially, like riding the train. It’s sort of a cool city thing.”

That was seconded at the Irving Park stop by a 31 year-old banking industry employee named Thai, who previously lived in Brew City and drove to work every day. “Milwaukee’s great, but the public transportation isn’t so great,” he said. “I actually prefer riding the el to driving, not having to sit in traffic. The CTA works perfectly for me.”

And unfortunately, while the campaign’s images of Sconnie-style recreation and socializing may be appealing, Wisconsin isn’t becoming more competitive for light-driving millennials. In Gov. Scott Walker’s nearly two terms, the state famously turned down $810 million in federal funds for intercity passenger rail, which had been secured by the previous administration. Less well-known, the state also disallowed regional transit authorities, cut active transportation funding, and even prohibited the use of condemnation for purchasing right-of-way for bike and pedestrian facilities.

Now Wisconsin, with its dollars for train and station ads, is supporting transit in Illinois.

But we’ll always have the Bears.

Eric Sundquist is Director of SSTI.