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Why T-SPLOST Failed: A Marketing Blunder

Atlanta, notorious throughout the United States for its traffic congestion, is part of a 10-county economic development region that last week ruthlessly shot down T-SPLOST, a 1% sales tax that would go toward a slew of transportation enhancements.

Throughout the suburbs, where distrust of Atlanta’s use of tax-payer money is the strongest, residents were utterly unpersuaded that tax dollars weren’t going down the drain.

Prior to the vote, the New York Times quoted Georgia Bikes! executive director Brent Buice saying, “A lot of states are looking at it very carefully to see what happens.”

Well, for anyone who did look, we hope you learned this lesson: a good idea is never enough. It deserves great communication; and great communication is precisely what the Untie Atlanta campaign did not have.

Today we don’t want to focus on the politics—whether or not T-SPLOST was the right idea. We want to focus on how the campaign could have more effectively overcome or worked around the distrust of their audience—particularly those in the suburban areas—by leveraging some time-honored presentation techniques, notably those implemented by the famous designer Saul Bass.

Let’s take a closer look at what went wrong.

The Rationale for Solutions Was Not Explained

Some predicted that the master list of projects proposed in T-SPLOST was going to have a positive impact on the voting results. Each region would have a pretty thorough list of what their dollars would be going toward, which should be reassuring, right?

Wrong.

Anyone who has ever pitched their business knows that a problem and a solution is never enough to make a good presentation. There’s a key piece in the middle where you explain why the solution you are presenting is the best among many. T-SPLOST’s specificity only raised more questions.

Why widen that road instead of this one? Why not build a new road over here? Why build that rail? Without any presented rationale, citizens were left guessing.

No matter how spectacular your solution may seem, assuming people will know or trust your rationale is a terrible mistake. This problem was compounded for Atlanta, where many of the people behind the list of projects were not considered traffic experts. This made it easier to conclude that the list might have more elements of personal interest than it should have or that the people in charge simply didn’t have a rationale for why certain projects would help. Ultimately, a severe skepticism developed concerning the quality of the solutions.

Foreseeable Objections Went Unaddressed

When you’ve clearly explained the rationale for your solutions, it’s important to go ahead and cut people off at the pass. Think of the big, top-of-mind items your audience is likely to consider that contradict your proposition, and then combat them before they have time to dig in.

For T-SPLOST, the most obvious concern was that the money would be wasted. Fortunately, in addition to the master list (which did leave room for ambiguity in interpretation), the state planned to create citizen accountability panels in each region to monitor how the funds would be spent. Furthermore, the project lists themselves were created with the consultation of regional representatives and through a number of public hearings.

These were good ideas; however, they weren’t communicated well. A $6 million marketing campaign was created to raise awareness, but unfortunately little, if any, of this was invested in the website or other prominent means of combating objections. Key information—such as that related to the above watchdog panel—is buried deep in places the average voter is unlikely to go digging. For example, the first place I found counterpoints to some of these objections was halfway through this five minute video by the Metro Atlanta Voter Education Network, a video which itself is buried far down on the T-SPLOST home page beneath numerous other links, content, and even another video.

Local residents were also concerned that the tax would continue after the allocated 10 year timeline—that there would be delays in drawing it to a close as there have been in removing the Georgia 400 toll (a hot topic the campaign surely anticipated).

The campaign should have preempted these objections by highlighting the fact that yes, some projects are taking longer to wrap up, but that overall from 2001-2010, of 39 states studied, the Georgia DOT was #1 at staying within budget and #2 at staying on schedule; but you won’t find those facts on the T-SPLOST website or in the T-SPLOST marketing campaigns.

You’ll find them in this not-much-discussed study.

Important Details Weren’t Highlighted

Sometimes—most of the time—people have a hard time envisioning how something is going to actually work. It sounds great, but how can I be sure this is a good decision? In a similar vein, famous designer Charles Eames once said, “The details are not the details. They make the design.”

There were two very important details that many people overlooked and that should have been shouted from the rooftops by the marketing folks:

  • The fed was going to match T-SPLOST raised funds for the region upwards of 500-700 million dollars.
  •  Regions that didn’t pass T-SPLOST have to match a higher % of state funds to local transportation projects in the future—30% instead of 10%.

Neither of these details stand alone as the sole reason to vote for T-SPLOST, but they are important details that could make the difference between someone being skeptical and confident about voting YES.

What Should Have Happened

So, lots of things obviously went wrong, and hindsight is 20/20; but would have worked better?

Pretty much the opposite.

In 1969, one of the most famous graphic designers of all time, Saul Bass, pitched telecom giant Bell on a new brand identity. The resulting brand makeover is one of the largest in history to this day. The video (also embedded below) of Bass’s presentation made it’s way around our office recently, and it’s striking how well structured the pitch is. The general format follows something like this:

  • Set the context for the project in the wider world
  • Introduce the goal and what you’re trying to accomplish
  • Explain the rationale and how you got to the solution
  • Reveal the solution and preempt objections
  • Go into important details that might be overlooked
  • Close with a future looking statement

As you’ve guessed by now, the Untie Atlanta campaign misses on most of the important marks here. The goal was definitely clear, and the context was set in a wider world, but after that, the train pretty much derails.

This should be a clear takeaway for the city of Atlanta, for other cities, and for anyone in business trying to pitch their ideas. Hopefully this mini case study in failure and Saul Bass’s example of success can be a reminder in how to approach getting big projects approved.

If you’ve got the time, I’d highly recommend a sit down with some coffee to watch the Saul Bass presentation:

If you have some ideas or techniques you use to pitch your ideas and projects, share them in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

Comments

  1. August 09, 2012 @ 4:19 pm
    Eric Van Fossen says:

    I think you make some good points and offer a great example of presentation. I would add a supplemental text for both the case in point and effective presentation. It’s one of my favorite books this summer. It’s titled, “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. It examines why/how our discussions fall so starkly into ‘left/right’ political polarizations. I think the ‘pro’ TSPLOSTers really suffered for not having this book handy. I’ve had the great fortune to work with and for some of the very best presentation people around. Everyone has this technique or go-to move but the common and decisive trait is their ability to make it show about the audience. Important distinction – not just ‘to an audience’ but about the audience. Saul Bass presentation is great – for one thing, you just feel smarter for having witnessed it. Always ask, what part of the presentation/work is going to make someone feel something. Even better, will it be a ‘feeling’ that will cause them to smile, stand or shout. If you have those things — you’ve got a shot.

  2. August 09, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

    Spot on, Eric. And thank you for the book recommendation. I’ll have to check it out.

  3. August 09, 2012 @ 10:08 pm
    Nancy says:

    Very good points as to what might have been presented better. However I think the very key point here was trying to sell something that most voters were skeptical of to begin with. You’re not starting with a blank slate, you’re starting with voters who have been burned. Most of the people I know who voted against it were intown voters, who actually liked the initiative list (beltline and so forth) but had very little faith that such a wide ranging initiative would ever come to pass with the track record of the government organizations involved. At that point, pointing out matching funds (which I was not aware of, so obviously a communications flaw) still doesn’t sell people. And the oversight options sound like lip service, rather than real solutions, when you’re talking about something of this magnitude. I realize the point of your article is to discuss the communications issues and how they could be better presented–and they are good points, but I’m not sure the best ad agency in the country could sell this as it the actual deal was structured. Granted, a better presentation would have helped, as the cocky ‘take it or you’re screwed’ attitude (the idea that if you DONT pass it you’ll have to pay more in the future looks like an arm twisting, not a benefit) was not a selling point.

    I would actually be very interested in an analysis on whether bringing an initiative like this to a smaller level — not trying to make this all things to all people — would have been more effective. Like I said, from my perspective as an Intown person, people were willing to pay the tax, if it had been more targeted around transit, rather than things like ‘fixing a bad interchange’. Comments I heard were things like ‘if this interchange is so bad, then prioritize it with current yearly funds and fix it’, whereas things like getting us to a modern transit system is something that can’t be fixed with our current money.

    Good analysis in general , though!

  4. August 09, 2012 @ 10:48 pm

    The actual, true website used to promote the T-SPLOST was http://transformmetroatlanta.com/…not the site you pointed out. In fact, if you read down the site you thought was the “pro-TSPLOST” website (i.e., http://www.t-splost.com/), you will see that the site is actually owned by and controlled entirely by Yancey Bros., a construction equipment company).

    The MAVEN folks have ripped-down their website that was http://www.transformmetroatlanta.com/. However, you can still see this site referenced from their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TransformATL

    To your original, main point regarding communication issues with the campaign? Yes, they had lots of issues…not the least of which was communicating to people like you the correct website to present their story. :-)

  5. August 10, 2012 @ 10:38 am

    Nancy – thanks for the good points. There were definitely lots of issues, and I think your point that they tried to make it all things to all people was a major issue. It’s analogous to an over-extended brand. It would be very hard to get ITP & OTP to all get on board with an enormous project list like they presented, even with the best ad agency in the world, like you said.

    Bill, thanks for pointing out the website! That’s actually kind of hilarious.

  6. August 10, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

    I did not like how this PAC shrouded itself in secrecy. I want to know who’s money is behind it! My gut feeling is that this PAC not a group of mere concerned citizens, but companies that would benefit from this SPLOST! I do not like how Nebo is here now, trying to explain away the clear will of the people. I want to know who is paying Nebo for this attemp at changing peoples minds. You failed, get over it.

  7. August 10, 2012 @ 2:58 pm

    Hey Bill,

    This post wasn’t about whether or not the SPLOST should have passed or not; we were just pointing out all the mistakes that were made from a communications perspective. And we definitely weren’t paid to do so.

    Thanks for your concern.

    Cheers,

    Chris

  8. August 10, 2012 @ 5:14 pm
    Ken Parmalee says:

    While this may fall under the “whether a T-SPLOST was a good idea” umbrella, the pro-SPLOST argument never answered the question, “Why should I vote for ANOTHER SPLOST when I’m already on the hook for two SPLOSTs courtesy of my county?

    One ad campaign in particular nailed the coffin shut in my mind — where all of the famous politicians speak in favor of T-SPLOST — the first question that popped in my head was, “What’s their cut?”

  9. August 10, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

    Hey Ken,

    Great point.

    I think your point is one of the key marketing challenges they faced in trying to get this approved. People in general don’t trust politicians, and this campaign didn’t provide anything to change that. It’s definitely a marketing issue, just like when you don’t buy a product because you’re not sure it’s gonna hold up.

    The current number of SPLOSTS is something we didn’t highlight here, so thanks for bringing that up as well.

    Thanks for dropping by.

    - Chris

  10. August 11, 2012 @ 3:12 am
    Jacob says:

    Good points and a definite marketing failure for not highlighting these. However, the failure of TSPLOST was not the result of marketing but the fact that the good projects were bundled with worthless projects such that the total package was not worth the cost to taxpayers. A fair number of people saw this and dismissed the TSPLOST marketing as propaganda as a result. Pitching it simplistically as a penny to magically eliminate traffic jams might work for people who don’t do their homework and who are also too lazy to vote, however the people who bothered to vote may have actually looked at the project lists.

  11. August 11, 2012 @ 6:28 am
    Todd Brynt says:

    This was a good analysis of the events and helpful for anyone who is challenged with trying to get projects approved during these tough economic and political times. I appreciate the effort and the insight.

    Thanks!

  12. December 27, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

    [...] This unbiased breakdown of why the seemingly popular T-SPLOST referendum ultimately failed at the polls this fall generated lots of discussion about why political movements sometimes fall flat on their faces. [view post] [...]