Metrolinx paying Instagram influencers to promote Ontario Line, prompting concern ads are 'premature'
Month-old campaign garnering thousands of likes, comments on social media
Posing in front of a Leslieville mural, a young woman with a wide smile is holding her baby. The pair are clad in matching tan fleece — a jacket for her, a onesie with ears for him.
In the corresponding photo caption on Instagram, the on-trend mom says she's "excited" to have more public transit options when the Ontario Line is completed.
Another shot shows a different woman in a pink coat (and hat, and skirt) clutching her coffee cup on Queen Street West. Beside it, her Instagram caption claims the province's Ontario Line will "significantly reduce congestion and travel time" through the downtown core.
Search the hashtag #mxitshappening and you'll find more Instagram posts just like these.
They're all part of a new Metrolinx ad campaign featuring young, diverse influencers from across the GTHA who are all praising various transit projects — a move that's got some critics concerned the posts are "premature," and could be misleading residents about the level of design work completed for proposed routes like the Ontario Line.
Since late October, the posts have been popping up from a mix of 11 popular local personalities, from bloggers to YouTubers to fitness trainers, all with follower counts ranging from around 8,000 to more than 174,000.
"The Ontario Line will have fifteen stops that will make it faster and easier to connect across the city," reads one. Getting to the city's Liberty Village neighbourhood will be "so much easier" once the line is built, claims another.
The posts themselves have been gaining steam online, with one getting 17,000 "likes" and counting on the social media platform.
It's the latest push amid Metrolinx's recent shift into influencer marketing. In August, for instance, TV personality Rick Campanelli posed in front of a GO train, with the corresponding Instagram caption spouting his appreciation for a Niagara travel package — a common theme of earlier posts, supporting existing transit lines.
Anne Marie Aikins, spokesperson for the provincial transit agency, wouldn't reveal how much the latest campaign costs, saying those details require a freedom of information request.
"We don't have a separate budget line for influencer costs as engaging with influencers is just one part of marketing campaigns," she said, adding Metrolinx works with several outside agencies on its communications and paid media campaigns.
So far, similar posts have been "really effective" in spreading the word about Metrolinx's current offerings to a younger demographic, Aikins continued.
The agency also credits the campaigns with helping boost GO Transit ridership, which grew from 72.4 million in 2017-18 to more than 76 million a year later — a five-per-cent jump — with more gains expected this year.
Campaign feels 'premature,' councillor says
But the latest campaign, with some posts focusing on a not-yet-built transit project, is "premature" and "insincere," Toronto city councillor Josh Matlow said
"I think that Metrolinx and the government of Ontario should get transit built, then start announcing it," he added.
One of the new influencer posts claims Metrolinx is adding an Ontario Line stop in Moss Park. While it's a possible station listed on the latest route map released by the transit agency, there's a caveat: The stations, and the alignment itself, could change.
Announced by Premier Doug Ford in April, the 15-kilometre line — which is supposed to be finished by 2027 — is only at a 0 to 10 per cent design level, according to a report from Toronto's city manager.
"The line isn't fully approved. There's still work to identify exactly where the stops will be," stressed Matlow.
And already, some proposed station locations are prompting significant community pushback.
Word of an above-ground stretch in the east end, for instance, led to resident concerns in Leslieville over the possibility of unhealthy noise levels or home expropriations to make room for expanded tracks.
The financial side of the Ontario Line plan is also evolving. According to a first business case approved by Metrolinx's board in September, the total capital costs for the project could be between $9.5 billion and $11.4 billion.
But those numbers could change dramatically, with industry standards suggesting a difference of up to 100 per cent more at the high end, which equals a doubling of the cost.
Given the uncertainty, Matlow questioned the #mxitshappening branding itself.
"It should be like, 'Hashtag, It may be happening, if all the stations that we're promising are approved, and we can secure the funding, and if another government doesn't scrap all our plans,'" Matlow said.
Metrolinx wants people to 'feel hopeful'
Aikins acknowledged the concerns but said, while the Ontario Line may be in the planning stage, the agency does consider that "building transit," and an update worth sharing with the public.
"You have to start with a plan. Then, you have to move on to further planning and design work before you put your shovels in the ground," she said.
The goal for the new campaign, Aikins added, is to assure the public that progress is being made and make people "feel hopeful."
Ryerson University assistant professor Jenna Jacobson, an expert on influencer marketing, said companies partnering with popular Instagram accounts is a growing business.
She said Metrolinx's latest push is a clear "awareness" campaign, offering an example of a company trying to promote a new service or product using the micro-celebrity culture found online.
What those influencers get in return, she added, can be all over the map: Anything from free products or event tickets to cold hard cash.
"You can recognize that there is some form of compensation, but what that compensation is, you can't tell ... I would anticipate in a situation like this, that this is a paid arrangement," Jacobson added.
CBC Toronto reached out to multiple Instagram influencers participating in the new Metrolinx campaign, but so far none have returned the request for comment.