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Advertising: Great Fliers Make the ‘Best of Their Situation,’ American Airlines Suggests

Who’s responsible for your happiness onboard? In a new ad campaign, the airline tactfully says it’s you.
Photo
An image from American Airlines’ new campaign.

American Airlines wants you to know it would really, really appreciate it if you could ask before raising the window shade, and if you could not hog the armrest. Also, be nice to the flight attendants when they greet you.

In a new campaign, which begins this week, aimed at the “world’s greatest fliers,” the airline says it wants to get away from fixating on features like the speed of its Wi-Fi or the size of the entertainment console.

Instead, the campaign praises travelers whose actions — like ceding the armrest to the middle-seat passenger — make the in-flight experience a better one. “Customers really have a huge impact on the flying experience,” said Fernand Fernandez, American’s vice president of global marketing.

“Always upbeat, great fliers make the best of their situation no matter where they’re sitting,” one print ad says.

Still, in an era of smaller seats, longer lines and increasing fees, it is an open question how receptive travelers will be to the message that a positive air travel experience is really in their control.

“It’s all a function of the environment they’re faced with,” said Robert Mann, a consultant for the airline industry. “If you’re faced with ever-fuller airplanes, with ever-greater seating density, people’s reactions are going to be moderate to poor anyway.”

The frustrations of flying are only magnified, he pointed out, when flights are delayed — which was more likely to be the fault of an airline in 2015 than other factors like bad weather, airport and air traffic control problems or security bottlenecks, according to data from the Department of Transportation.

John Thomas, the head of global aviation for L.E.K. Consulting, pointed out that the delivery of the campaign’s message was critical to making it work.

“The airlines have to be careful how they position it,” he said, adding that the tone of American’s campaign was tasteful and seemed to strike the right chord.

“It sounds like they’re also trying to touch on civility in travel again. I think the industry as a whole is trying to subtly do that,” Mr. Thomas said. When it comes to in-flight etiquette, “I think the industry probably recognizes that a lot of people don’t know how to define civility,” he said, pointing out that infrequent fliers might not be aware of the unspoken code of good flier behavior. “This is a way of starting to educate people.”

Although the unspoken “rules” of flying are discussed in forums on websites like FlyerTalk.com, they generally remain unacknowledged by the casual traveler. This campaign aims to change that.

“It’s not just like these are tips on how to be a great flier. It’s a way of thinking,” said Ralph Watson, vice president and chief creative officer at Crispin Porter & Bogusky Boulder, American’s ad agency partner. “It’s a slightly elevated sense of awareness for others; it’s a little bit less selfish. I think a lot of this is to recognize that behavior and help it spread.”

Mr. Watson said American was aware of the need to use a deft touch. A tone consumers perceive as didactic could be a turnoff. “All we’re doing is identifying their behaviors,” he said, while leaving the directive implicit. “We’re not saying, ‘You should.’”

Visually, the campaign is heavy on sweeping, wide-open spaces, and it returns to prominence the airline’s red-and-blue soaring-eagle logo. It includes TV and online commercials, full-page print ads in newspapers, ads outdoor and in airports, as well as social media promotion.

Next month, American will begin integrating the campaign into sponsorships, as well as into its AAdvantage frequent-flier program, and it also is using the campaign for internal marketing to its employees.

“It starts with our employees and the contributions they make,” Mr. Fernandez said. “We really wanted to take the tone of ‘It’s really you.’ It’s you the travelers and you the employee who kind of elevates the entire mood. Let’s move that conversation from us and turn it onto them and how they really move us forward in creating a much better experience.”

In doing this, Mr. Thomas said the campaign also tapped into a broader push toward individualizing the travel experience at every step — in the same vein as personalized in-flight entertainment and merchandise, and more finely honed loyalty marketing, to AAdvantage members and the like, which airlines have started putting into effect.

“I think the underlying tone is, because we recognize that people are different, we as an airline are going to try and treat people differently,” Mr. Thomas said. “They want to experience their flying differently.”

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