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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WA state ferry fans see red over Coca-Cola banner ads on vessels

By David Kroman Seattle Times

A good way to make a lot of people mad is to cover even part of a Washington State Ferries vessel in a bright red Coca-Cola ad.

So it has gone since the country’s largest ferry system signed off on a plan to wrap the bow and stern of the ferry Tacoma with the hemoglobin-hued banners pitching passengers on a trip to the vending machine. WSF crew, executive leadership and customer service have been slammed with emails, messages and in-person complaints bemoaning this month’s red wrapping as a desecration of the green and white trophies of the Puget Sound. Gov. Jay Inslee himself raised an eyebrow.

“If you need any example of how the public and our governor and our colleagues feel about our boats, putting bright red wrapping on the outside and splashing some red on the inside, you’re going to hear about it,” John Vezina, director of planning, customer and government relations with WSF, said in an all-staff meeting last week.

It’s why, beginning next month, you may not see one of those ads again for a while. The contract with Coca-Cola, sold by the local firm, Trans4Media, ends Nov. 19. After that, WSF is going to take a pause from advertisements on the boats’ exterior.

“We don’t have any plans to do that sort of advertising again until we can have a more robust conversation about what’s appropriate,” Vezina told staff.

Ads on the inside of the ferries have come and gone for years, but the Coca-Cola display was the first to splash across the boat’s outside, in addition to the boat’s stairwells and in the Seattle terminal.

WSF approved the sale of exterior ads just before COVID-19. It’s a new privilege that’s been used sparingly. Virginia Mason Franciscan Health paid to display a large mask on the front of one ferry early in the pandemic and there was briefly a giant mustache affixed to a boat to raise awareness about prostate cancer.

Coca-Cola was the first for-profit company to buy an outside ad. The company paid $215,000.

In total, ferries sold around a half a million dollars in advertising, which goes toward the ferries’ operating expenses. In the grand scheme, it’s a tiny portion of revenue coming through the door: Fares are expected to generate nearly half a billion dollars in the 2023-25 budget cycle.

When the ads went up this fall, they instantly generated a beehive of social media grumbling and customer complaints. Inslee was among those put off by the look.

“The governor recognizes how iconic our ferries are and he was surprised there aren’t provisions to account for how paid advertising on our ferries would impact that aesthetic,” spokesperson Mike Faulk said in an email.

Ferries have some restrictions on ads, including against alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and gambling, but will consider additional restrictions in the coming months.

The challenges facing the ferries are immense. Staffing is still short, vessels continue to break down and fares are increasing as ridership projections have gone down. Taken together, it means a new advertisement policy is not topping many agendas right now.

“Given other priorities, I expect that review to take several months,” Vezina said in a follow-up email. “In the meantime, we won’t be selling vessel advertising.”