PR vs. advertising at 36,000 feet

My husband and I flew on a discount airline to Atlanta last week – and even though I had never even heard of AirTran before, assured us they were legit!

An hour or so into our flight, we were served the traditional discount airline fare: pretzels.

Only these were pretzels with, well, a twist.

As I read the pretzel package (because, after all, what better way is there to pass the time on a two-hour flight?), I actually smiled. The front of the package read:

"How to eat gourmet pretzels on a low-fare airline."

When I flipped the package over, the words continued:

1. Think about our wonderful low fares at as you open packet.
2. Place a pretzel in mouth. With each crunch, be reminded of our low fares.
3. As you swallow, remember again just how low the fares are.
4. Repeat until pretzel packet is empty.
5. Keep empty packet to remind yourself to book at for our lowest fares and no booking fees.

Like I said, I was bored enough that the cute attempt at airline humour actually made me crack a smile.

Pan now to the cocktail napkin on my seat tray. Actually, it wasn’t so much a napkin as a 4x4 ad for the latest brown cola to hit the U.S.

Sitting there in my seat at 36,000 feet, I read the ad pitch. But this time, I did not smile.

For some reason, the ad seemed invasive to me. As if I couldn’t escape the pitchman even here, a mile high above the earth’s surface.

Which made me wonder to myself: what was the difference between the pretzels and the cocktail napkin? Both were clearly attempts to gain my support and (ultimately) consumer dollars.

Why had AirTran succeeded when the brown cola company had so utterly failed?

Then I faintly remembered a passage from brand guru Lynn Upshaw’s new book, Nothing But the Truth. I looked it up later and here’s what Upshaw writes:

“Promoting honestly, and not invasively, is a big issue now. The customer is saying you’re not invited to my party, and we’re surprising them in the shower. There are so many instances with people seeing commercial messages when they don’t want to. You have to respect your consumer’s privacy.”

What it came down to, at least the way I see it, is that I had already invited AirTran to my party. I mean, there I was, sitting in the seat, wasn’t I?

So when I read a little joke about discount airlines, I got it. I laughed. I bought in. Because AirTran and I had already struck up a relationship.

Cola company XYZ, on the other hand, had not been invited to my party, and I was annoyed at the invasion of my privacy.

The experience reminded me how important public relations has become in the world of branding, and how skeptical we’ve become as a culture to commercial over-messaging.

So, kudos to Air Tran, and as for Cola Company XYA – give it a rest, would you?

Here’s to clear skies!