Fly the Branded Skies

Tropes: Sex

Every kind of advertising has—well, let’s call them “conventions.” Airline advertising is no different. This is part of a series of posts on the clichés of airline advertising.

Last month, the Flight Attendants Association of Australia vowed to take the Russian airline AviaNova to the International Transport Federation over an ad the low-cost carrier recently produced. The ad depicts the airline’s unusual (and, let’s be honest, pretty inefficient) method for washing its planes. In a shameless play for more visitors, I include that video below:

Sex sells. That’s what they always say. And it doesn’t matter that plenty of academic research and professional experience shows that sex doesn’t really sell, for decades, it was one of the most important weapons in the airline advertising arsenal.

I mean, let’s be honest: airline advertising relies on a lot of pretty dubious claims. “Our stewardesses are hotter than their stewardesses” is no more ridiculous than some of the others. It’s pretty hard to imagine any airline going to the NAD to dispute it. It’s the sexism, not the merit, that makes these ads grotesque.

And it seems that carriers based in the southern U.S. were the worst offenders. Consider one of the most famous airline ads of all time, a burlesque for Braniff created by Mary Wells Lawrence:

The 1971 “Fly Me” campaign for National Airlines was controversial even at the time. Some of the airline’s flight attendants wore buttons reading “Fly yourself.” The ads were written by Dick Wolf at F. William Free and Company before he went on to create Law & Order.

And Southwest Airlines’ early 1970s ads… well, they speak for themselves.

These ads are, of course, a product of their times. According to Peter Pigott’s book Wingwalkers, when CP Air changed its flight attendant uniforms from mini to ankle-length “midi”-skirts, they received a letter from an irate customer: “When your idiot vice-president put your stewardesses into midis, I issued instructions to my staff that henceforth nobody in the company was to fly CP Air.”

With the rare Russian exception, you won’t see ads like this anymore. It’s not so much that airlines are more enlightened than they once were, although that may be true. Their customers have changed. A male business traveler today wouldn’t look or feel particularly good submitting travel receipts for, say, Hooters Air. And more importantly, women now make up more than 40% of business travelers. Airlines have to appeal to them, too.

Of course that doesn’t mean that airlines have taken the sex out of advertising—but they have made it more democratic. And sometimes… arguably… they’ve even used it for good, as in this safety video for Air New Zealand: