Marketing in simpler times

The world of marketing has changed dramatically since the days when destination blinds could be unintelligible to all but the most local-savvy of passengers, and when the most prominent on-bus publicity Jim Hulme can remember was a strict ban on spitting.

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I sat on a bus the other day and I failed in my attempt to take in the plethora of notices that were displayed at impossible angles on coving panels all around me. My varifocal lenses did nothing to help, although had I been a trained contortionist I might have been able to make sense of some of them.

Was it like that 50-odd years ago? I can recall window bills advising of service changes, but nothing on the scale of today’s colourful yet often unintelligible array of ‘on-bus’ publicity. The one notice I do remember was permanently displayed at the front of the saloon: “Spitting strictly prohibited”. Any number of sins were apparently permitted, but spitting wasn’t one of them.

Marketing in those days was relatively unsophisticated, although Blackburn Corporation Transport had the novel idea of coloured destination blinds for its ‘express’ services to the neighbouring towns of Darwen and Accrington. Regrettably the police put a stop to the innovation, because at night an illuminated red destination blind conflicted with a legal requirement not to display red lights at the front of a vehicle.

Wigan Corporation buses had a green light on either side of the destination display, so that at night passengers knew that it was a Corporation bus.

Telling passengers where the bus is going is a fundamental requirement. In Manchester we had elaborate destination displays that showed not only the ultimate destination, but also the principal points en route. I remember a letter from an irate passenger who had boarded a bus believing that it was going to Oldham, because that’s what it said on the front of the bus. As a non-local, she hadn’t realised that the bus had already been through Oldham.

In my early days at Blackburn, buses on local services showed the outer destination in both directions. The only clue as to where the bus was going could be found at the bus stops, which were labelled ‘outward’ and ‘inward’. You had to be a knowledgeable local to understand this strange convention, because a bus showing ‘Wilpshire’ might in fact be going to the town centre. And only locals knew that buses that simply showed ‘East’ or ‘West’ were in fact travelling to Revidge, either via ‘East’ Park Road or via ‘West’ Park Road.

Buses showed some weird and wonderful destinations. You could see a Blackburn Corporation bus going to ‘Hole I’th Wall’, an Accrington bus to ‘Load of Mischief’, and it must have been quite a journey for residents of Bury whose bus went to ‘Jericho’.

The most frustrating destination display for passengers was ‘Duplicate’. It was a legal requirement that a duplicate journey had to run immediately in front of a timetabled journey, and labelling it as a duplicate was an indication to passengers that if the bus was full, for example, the timetabled bus was still on its way. At stops served by more than one service it wasn’t easy for a passenger to know where the ‘duplicate’ was going, and relying on the goodwill of the conductor to shout out the destination was a hit-and-miss affair.

But nothing today compares to a branding exercise undertaken in Accrington after the First World War, when corporation buses were painted blue and red to commemorate the regimental colours of the Accrington Pals who were lost in the battle of the Somme in 1916. Mudguards were painted black as a sign of mourning. The tribute continued until the demise of the undertaking after deregulation.