I perform stand-up comedy as a hobby.
Every time I sit in the green room awaiting my turn on stage, I listen as my fellow comedians struggle to maintain the fine line between the irreverent and the obnoxious. Some succeed. Some bomb. And, those that do bomb are not only greeted by boos but, even worse, by dead silence. And, trust me, the latter is far worse. Silence tells a comedian, an actor or a brand for that matter, that they’re not worth the time of day.
And, frankly, the new Spirit Airline campaign isn’t worth the time of day either except that it serves as a textbook example of how not to use humor in marketing. In case you’ve somehow dodged the endless barrage of unsolicited spam from the low-fare discount airline, their sleazy promotions have run the gamut from scantily-clad, pole dancing ‘flight attendants’ who strut their stuff in flatbed trucks going from market to market to frat boy, promotional riffs on the latest political scandal.
For example, during the endless Anthony Weiner scandal, Spirit blasted this very unfunny e-mail: And, when the Governator’s reckless ways with his house maid generated front-page news, Spirit jumped on the bandwagon with an ad entitled, ‘Hasta la vista to high fares!’ The text was predictably accompanied by a photo of an attractive young lady in a French Maid’s costume.
Spirit supplements these breaking news one-offs with an endless barrage of daily e-mails sporting such witty titles as: ‘The Red Light Special’ (a trashy tome that trumpets $9 one-way and $17 round-trip fares).
I have three fundamental marketing problems with the Spirit campaign. The first two are obvious:
1.) Sophomoric humor isn’t funny (unless you’re a sophomore in high school).
2.) Since they’re neither clever nor witty, the ads end up being nothing more than offensive and stupid. The latter may work for Godaddy.com and Howard Stern, but not for an airline.
3.) Airlines are a very serious business. Each day they transport thousands of people to and fro in their planes. If, God forbid, something tragic should occur on a Spirit Airline, these ads will be dredged up by the media and used against them (remember how the media savaged BP with its own advertising after the oil spill?).
Reputation management is fundamentally critical because it helps build a reservoir of trust and credibility in the minds of end users. That’s why, despite endless product recalls, J&J continues to finish at, or near, the top of the Fortune and Reputation Institute lists for most admired organizations. The company spent decades making itself synonymous with trust. BP, on the other hand, changed the meaning of its initials (from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum) before it had built a reservoir of trust. Then, adding insult to injury, BP didn’t back up the change with quality assurance programs. Hence, when the oil hit the fan, as it were, pundits and comedians had a field day (‘i.e. Did you hear what BP stands for? Beyond Pathetic.’).
I’m not sure what the polar opposite of reputation management is, but Spirit Airlines is pioneering the craft.
Smart, insightful humor can be a powerful weapon in any organization’s marketing arsenal. And, it can work very well in serious industries too. Just look at Geico (life insurance) and Southwest (airlines). But, crass, offensive junk like the kind being served up by Spirit is akin to whistling past the graveyard. They know they’re over-stepping the boundaries of common decency in an attempt to sell tickets. What they don’t know is how the media will use these very same ads to destroy Spirit’s reputation if, and when, something goes south.
I think the new motto for Spirit Airlines should be: ‘An accident waiting to happen.’”