If Seth Rogen told you not to hold subway doors open or clip your toenails while riding the bus, would you listen?
The Canadian-born actor, best known for roles in movies like "Knocked Up" and "Pineapple Express," is the new voice of announcements for TransLink, the transportation agency serving Vancouver, British Columbia. He's not the first celebrity to lend his voice to transit, but he is the biggest -- and his new role is already inspiring at least one U.S. transit agency.
After hearing about Rogen's new gig, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), which serves Philadelphia, held a contest throughout August asking its riders who they’d like to be the “voice of SEPTA.” The agency says it received formal responses from nearly 1,000 people, and roughly 3,000 provided feedback on social media.
Hometown comedians Tina Fey and Kevin Hart were common suggestions. But by far the most popular was actor Will Smith, who, as any "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" fan knows, was "West Philadelphia born and raised."
SEPTA now plans to reach out to a wide array of the suggested announcers and see which might be willing to donate their time.
“Our inspiration for this came after we saw the stories about Seth Rogen,” says SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch. “We saw it as an opportunity to engage with our riders on social media.”
SEPTA may not be the only American transit agency drawing such inspiration. The mayor's office in Los Angeles -- a city where celeb voices abound -- recently contacted TransLink about Vancouver’s experience. However, a spokesman for the mayor couldn't confirm the city's interest in pursuing a celebrity voice for its transit system.
Other famous transit voices include Nick Lachey of the band 98 Degrees, who recorded announcements still running on the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar; and Jarvis Cocker from the band Pulp, who lent his voice to the streetcar in Sheffield, England, in 2016.
TransLink believes Rogen's voice -- and his distinctive laugh -- has been good for the agency and for the riders.
“We got a huge bump in our engagement online,” says Robert Willis, who manages TransLink’s digital content. “We saw shares and likes like we've never seen before.”
That kind of attention has obvious benefits for transportation agencies that can often frustrate their riders with delays, breakdowns or fare adjustments -- all of which routinely spark public ire on social media. Willis says the actor’s voice “improved the customer experience and helped public support for TransLink, which is always looking for more funding.” A celebrity voice, Willis believes, may make transit users more likely to pay attention to announcements about riding etiquette and more likely to listen to them.
Rogen's involvement with TransLink stemmed from a high-profile controversy. At first, actor Morgan Freeman was the one reminding Vancouver riders to stop smoking on buses or keep their feet off the seats. Then the international #MeToo reckoning reached the Academy Award winner. Numerous women came forward to accuse Freeman of sexual harassment. Financial services company Visa, which had paid for Freeman's transit announcements, immediately suspended its contract with the movie star.
“Visa offered TransLink a freebie, and it looked like the best deal in town,” but the agency ultimately “walked into the propeller-blade," Simon Fraser University professor Lindsay Meredith told The Vancouver Sun at the time.
With Freeman out, TransLink riders began posting on social media with suggestions of famous Canadians who might replace him -- actor Ryan Reynolds, say, or singer Michael Bublé. The online brainstorming peaked when Rogen, a Vancouver native who still uses the city’s public transit, tweeted his interest in the job.
TransLink quickly seized the opportunity:
Rogen voiced a series of announcements -- all free of charge.
“Any opportunity to enrich the lives of the Canadian people is an opportunity I will take,” he quips in the TransLink video. (He is also voicing similar transit announcements in Toronto.)
To the disappointment -- or relief -- of some Vancouverites, Rogen’s announcements aren't permanent. They'll be discontinued in October. But the experience has been so positive for TransLink that the agency says it's open to similar creative promotions in the future.