I was a kid in the 1970s, so when I catch a 1970s vibe I pay attention. Recently at the NYC Transit Museum in Brooklyn I discovered a 1970’s subway car full of vintage 1970s public service ads. When you step into this car, you’re stepping back into the ’70s.

Below are some ads from the car. What strikes me is how simple and quaint they are compared to today’s ads. And how much less competition for subway riders’ attention they must have had (no phones, social media, air pods).

Are the ads good? Did they work? You be the judge.

Register to Vote

Getting people registered to vote was a big deal in the 70s, in the wake of the 1965 voting rights act (and it still is today). A lot of effort went into it. Here’s a 1970’s register-to-vote poster by Peter Max:

The voting turnout in 1976 wasn’t actually very high. Jimmy Carter won the presidential election over incumbent Gerald Ford (who’d become president when Nixon resigned). Carter won the election, but then sort of lost most of his wars (the energy efficiency push among them).

Don’t Be Fuelish

Thanks to a crippling oil embargo and shortages in 1973-74, the U.S. government was frantically trying to get people to conserve energy. Though I love Mad Magazine illustrator Jack Davis (who did the poster), I doubt this campaign was effective. Maybe it worked a little when oil was scarce, but once the embargo was over and oil got cheap again people just didn’t care how much they used.

Bite Out Of Crime

McGruff the crime dog (‘take a bite out of crime’) officially made his debut in 1979. NYC was a mess of crime in the 1970s, as were many American cities due to the proliferation of hard drugs, ‘urban renewal,’ flight to the suburbs, etc. Here’s an early print ad for McGruff:

McGruff was memorable (and had a long run til the ’90s) but did he really do anything to reduce crime? Or was he just simultaneously cute and creepy?

Hitching rides on buses

I didn’t realize this was even a problem until I saw this subway ad. But apparently it was a dangerous game boys liked to play, as in this photo:

Forest Fires

Here’s Smokey The Bear in a 1970’s subway ad for ‘being careful!’ Presumably with matches, while in the woods (even more relevant today), though how that related to subway riders I’m not sure.

Here’s an earlier Smokey transit ad, from 1949, plus a little bit of the Smokey origin story courtesy of the University of Illinois. I guess shaming doesn’t work as well as just asking people to be careful… no surprise there.

Finally, here’s the inevitable follow-on Smokey and climate change editorial cartoon from The Seattle Times in 2022.

U.S. Savings Bonds

I wonder who decided that avocado green and lemon yellow would help sell U.S. bonds? Maybe someone thinking about guacamole and pina coladas on the beach? Anyway, T-bill interest rates were high in the mid-70s (7% for the ten-year treasury), so this was probably good advice.

Here’s a better (and more famous) transit ad for U.S. bonds, which debuted in 1970:

Which ad would you re-use on Tik-Tok for selling U.S. bonds today (they may soon need some selling)? I’d use the astronaut one… maybe doing a little Tik-Tok dance?

Fresh Air Fund

This one felt a little cringey to me, but figured I’d include it anyway because it’s still on the subway car at the museum. See this article for some background: “The Fresh Air Fund’s Complicated Racial Record.”

That’s all, exit here

Thanks for riding/reading!