How do you make a subway glamorous? That was the problem the Paris transit authority, the RATP, faced in trying to get more commuters to use public transit. They tried calling the M'etro a ``second car.'' But that went over like a lead balloon. Then they tried advertisements showing well-dressed ``yuppies'' prancing through the underground corridors, ecstatically leaping onto subway cars. That didn't work, either.
The problem was the product. It just wasn't chic.
Then the RATP hit upon the magic formula. The ticket. The little Paris M'etro ticket - yellow with a brown magnetic stripe down the middle - is the current star of an enormously successful user campaign, called Ticket Chic and Choc. The ticket has appeared as the alligator on Lacoste shirts and the tag on Levi's jeans. The Venus de Milo is portrayed in yellow with a brown striped down the middle. The Pyramids rise, yellow and brown, out of the Egyptian desert. Ballet slippers, diving boards, cows - nothing has escaped the campaign.
The ticket, advertising executives discovered, unlike the M'etro, can become anything you want it to be. The dramatic rise in users since the campaign began has confirmed its success.
In the five years since the Ticket Chic and Choc campaign began, the number of people using the M'etro and bus system has increased by 2 percent each year. Today 4.5 million passengers pass through the network each day, and see the ticket alternately portrayed as a spaceship, a metronome, even a piece of cake (yellow sponge with chocolate frosting, of course).
``We did a survey, asking people if they'd use this product,'' said Pascal Couvry of Ecom-Univas, the agency in charge of the ad campaign. ``After three years of the Ticket Chic and Choc campaign, the answers went from most people saying no to 40 percent saying yes.''
Ticket Chic and Choc has been so successful, in fact, that a boutique in the Chatelet-les-Halles M'etro station does a million dollar business selling M'etro ticket paraphanelia, including umbrellas, bath towels, key chains, men's boxer shorts, ashtrays, wallets, and director's chairs.
In the ads currently being shown on television and in cinemas, the little yellow ticket is now undergoing psychoanalysis to try to cope with its celebrity status. ``Doctor, I'm breaking down,'' complains the ticket, lying on an analyst's couch. ``All this publicity around me. I've become a sort of monument.''
Ever more ambitious, the RATP is now going one step further, trying to make the M'etro not only glamorous but also a center of urban social life. To brighten up the normally dreary trek from home to work, the RATP has organized pony rides, marionette shows, and musical concerts in the underground stations.
Last month the RATP held a sports week, and commuters watched boxing matches and fencing competitions in various underground stations. And recently passengers could hear doctors debate the relative benefits of cigarettes vs. chewing gum in the downtown Miromesnil M'etro station.
``It's well done, efficient, and makes the M'etro less anonymous,'' says Pelousa Damien an electrician, who stopped to listen.
In the future, any Parisian looking for excitement may go to the M'etro. It's become - almost - glamorous.