British Airways’ Unfriendly Skies

Over the years, advertisers have tried all kinds of tactics to attract customers, and more recently those tactics have seemed to cover the full spectrum of the possible, including the utterly oblique (Infiniti’s first campaign), the willfully tacky (Mentos), the memorable-for-memorability’s-sake (’s flying gerbils and ravenous wolves), and the self-loathing (Sega’s Japanese ads for Dreamcast, which I wrote about here last week). But in one of its new ads, British Airways, of all companies, seems to be pioneering a still relatively uncharted strategy: mocking its own customers, and its most lucrative customers at that.

The ad is set in an elementary-school (or whatever the British call elementary school) classroom, where the kids are engaged in a furious game of musical chairs. Its basic premise is that certain kinds of people end up doing certain kinds of jobs when they grow up, which is certainly an unsurprising enough premise. And for the first 20 seconds or so of the ad, as different children find seats in different ways and thereby demonstrate their eventual fates (as the camera zooms in on the individual kids, their eventual professions appear on screen), the ad, too, is unsurprising.

Then a boy–with curly hair and glasses, I think, though I’ve seen the ad only a couple of times–realizes that he’s been frozen out, that all the seats have been taken and he’s lost. His response is to throw a tantrum, and he stomps around, complaining–presumably at the top of his lungs, though the ad is silent except for the announcer’s voice-over–at this unjust turn of events. And on-screen appears the word, “CEO.”

The camera pans down the occupied seats, to alight upon a fresh-scrubbed English lass, who stands up and lets the peevish boy sit down, much to his self-satisfied delight. The ad closes with the girl in the foreground, smiling at the camera, because she is, of course, the perfect future British Airways flight attendant.

The “our flight attendants are generous souls who will sacrifice anything for the pleasure and comfort of their charges” message is not odd here. But the “CEOs are spoiled children whose main talent consists of yelling and screaming until they get what they want, even at the cost of others’ well-being” is strange, particularly since all the children in the game who have got seats appear to have got them by dint of hard work and/or sharp tactics. The CEO has failed because he’s not very good, and succeeds only by crying. The only way the ad could have painted a less savory picture of corporate chieftains would have been if the teacher had forced one of the other students to stand up. But then that would have defeated the whole “flight attendants are angels” part of the ad.

What’s especially interesting about this is that British Airways is in the midst of a well-publicized slimming down (figurative and literal, since BA is going to be flying smaller planes) that’s designed to make high-end customers a larger percentage of the airline’s business. This ad, with its faintly populist air, doesn’t seem to fit the new strategy all that well. But who knows? Maybe BA has figured out that what CEOs really want is for someone to see them as they truly are and then say, “Hey, it’s OK.” After all, in the end the spoiled kid does get the chair and a smile from the pretty girl.