Forget their pretty imagery and seductive phrasing. A travel ad has a single purpose: to get you to spend your money. Sometimes, in their desperation to drum up business or create a buzzy campaign, advertisers fumble and manage to tick off lots of customers.
Spirit Airlines, which charges passengers extra if they so much as carry on a bag, was already the most tone-deaf of the U.S. airlines, but this ad, placed last June (left), repulsed even its hardened frequent fliers. In it, Spirit plugged its flights by making light of the BP oil spill. As dead wildlife and ribbons of crude washed up on Gulf Coast beaches, fouling an entire sea, Spirit launched this smug promotion of the East Coast, Cancun, and Puerto Rico, untouched by the disaster.
It was not only cruel to the many Americans whose lives were devastated by the spill. It was also a cheap shot. Making a buck off a calamity of unprecedented proportions? When it was suggested the ads might be insensitive, Spirit defended them in a statement: "The only oil you'll find when traveling to our beaches is sun tan oil."
You stay classy, Spirit.
Dirty phonetics! Air Asia, a counter-culture low-cost carrier run by a protege of Virgin's Richard Branson, put out this one. Say it aloud to get the joke, but not in front of kids. Thailand's Phuket is one of the most popular beach destinations in Southeast Asia. The potty-mouthed potential to offend is pretty obvious here. But it also insults the reader, because it lampoons a popular and vital resort destination by reducing the Thai language to something that might make an English speaker titter. Would Bolivia advertise Lake Titicaca this way? Besides, Air Asia's pronunciation gag isn't even accurate: As one English-speaking resident noted, there's no F sound in Thai. Phuket is actually pronounced with hard P. If you're really being accurate, it sounds more like "Bukit." So Air Asia's ad also assumes Westerners are idiots who can't pronounce foreign words. Offense all around.
Just what is a customer supposed to expect from an airline if this is what inspires them to book a ticket? You can bet that they're not going for a crowd that prefers clean things. Advertising things with beauties is nothing new, but in this case, bare skin is all a customer can clearly see. It's not even possible to make out the name of the airline so it can make a sale. (We know: It's Avianova, a Russian low-cost airline based in Moscow -- which isn't a city known for its bikini usage.) Not even knowing what's being advertised is something that should offend Madison Avenue, too.
This ad (right) is so hard to look at it that it's a wonder that anyone could ever think it could be an enticing image. But, being a vintage ad, it keys up an unpleasant history lesson about how things used to be for travelers. For a century after emancipation, African-Americans were often relegated to service roles, particularly in the travel industry, such as railway porters and bellboys. The first porters on Pullman train cars were freed slaves, and by the early 20th century, Pullman employed 20,000 people, the largest group of black men in the country. White travelers, and those with money, came to accept the existence of a servant class that largely consisted of black men and women, and in fact, as with the Pullman porters, black workers often had a reputation for meticulous and attentive service. So, as subservient as the imagery is today, for people of the time this ad strummed the notion of a black man as a warm and hospitable helper who cared only for the pleasure of his white employers.
The stooped posture and exaggerated skin tone of the porter comes from another aspect of accepted racism in that era: minstrel shows and Jim Crow acts. The false stereotype of a black man who's only too happy to serve his white masters didn't die with slavery. It endured as one of the most popular archetypes of popular entertainment, and was carried out by both black and white performers. The image of a kindly black servant would have been familiar and comforting to many white consumers of the day. Now its dehumanizing quality it just makes us queasy. This ad sold Bermuda, a British territory, to Americans by calling on symbols there were likely to find quaint and comforting.
Every red-blooded heterosexual American man knows about the implied sexual promise of the famous French maid's outfit. Given that innuendo, how else can a person take this ad? If you're a frequent guest at our hotels, we'll let you sleep with our staff? First Hotels may not be leading with an accurate depiction of its amenities, and it's probably alienating most of its potential female guests, but it gets bonus creepster points for grafting elements of the Sexy Librarian on the tried-and-true French Maid look.
When the photographer took "Cheryl"'s photo for this ad, did she know that National was going to write that little monologue for her? Probably: Although we'd never tolerate it now, National's "Fly me" campaign, which took off on the then-louche reputation of the flight attendant world, was controversial even in the early 1970s, and the airline even gave its aircraft female names to justify the innuendo of the promotion. Like the First Hotels' French Maid, this vintage ad uses an attractive woman as sexual bait. It's one thing to put a pretty person on an ad to catch the eye. It's another to coyly suggest that if you purchase the product, you'll be allowed to mate with her. The airline was folded into Pan Am in 1980 and is no more.
You would think that an Indian airline such as Jet Airways would be cognizant of the fact that the bindi (forehead decoration) has its origins in mysticism and spirituality and in some circles, it traditionally denotes marriage and prosperity. In India, it's common for priests to mark visitors to their temple with a dot. Yes, over time the bindi has become more of a fashion accessory, and there are few modern Indians who would take offense to this, which is maybe why the airline thought it could get away with sticking one on an American icon, even if she's already wearing a sari. But does this mean the Statue of Liberty is married?
Asia and Mexico
When marketing a foreign culture to Americans, an advertiser must accept their potential customers probably know very little about the destination. It's all too easy to fall into oversimplified stereotypes of what your customers think they're going to find when they get there. Forget the obsolete verbiage ("Orient") of the ad on the left. It's the faceless mass of yellow people, armless as geishas, that calls up unwanted stereotypes of what Westerners assume Asia is like. The deco stylization of that one may get it off the hook for being truly offensive, but the Mexican depicted as a sombrero-wearing, poncho-flourishing, guitar-toting desert cactus discards everything cosmopolitan and modern about our Southern neighbor. Then again, the Mexican poster is a product of the country's official tourist office. Some of us, though, would rather have a richer understanding of the realistic picture of vacation destinations than what we'd find in an Epcot pavilion.
American Airlines' ad promotes this woman's "maternal instincts," but her shapely legs and bedroom eyes suggest that if she's like anyone's mom, it's Oedipus's. Modern flight attendants are now considered the front line for flight safety (and add-on fee collection) and to the relief of airline staff everywhere, no longer marketed as sex objects. It's unlikely we'd see such a questionably suggestive ad today. Unless your mom charged you extra for tuck-ins and food.
Sure, you can't please people all of the time, and there's always going to be someone who objects to a daring ad campaign, even if it's done tongue-in-cheek. But whether you're offended by these ads or not, it's debatable how well they serve the travel product being advertised, and there's little question that few of them would pass without comment today.