WestJet Santa Stunt Leaves Sour Taste

by , Dec 13, 2013, 10:56 AM
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We’ve all had that moment: the moment when you go against the grain, when you don’t get the joke, when you refuse to go along with the meme or you’re the only one pointing out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

I had that moment this week, when I finally watched the now-famous WestJet Santa video tearing up my NewsFeed – currently sitting on 15 million views and counting. The premise is simple: Before they board, passengers on a WestJet flight get asked by a digital Santa what they want for Christmas. While they’re in the air, teams from WestJet procure all the gifts, which are wrapped, individually addressed, and distributed via the baggage carousel at the destination.

Almost everyone I know loves it, and the comments are overwhelmingly favorable, including here on MediaPost. It’s a gorgeous bit of kitsch. It pulls the heartstrings. It’s a brilliant marketing ploy. I LOLed. But it made me uncomfortable.

It made me uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. We’re celebrating the giving of socks, underwear, and flat-screen TVs to first-world people who are already well-off enough to live above what Hans Rosling calls the “Air Line” -- the richest one billion people on the planet.

But there’s more to it than that. As the people were describing what they wanted, I wondered how they would feel when they got what they asked for -- and a small, highly unenlightened part of me imagined disappointment. The guy with the socks and undies -- surely he would regret not having gone for the big-screen? Or a car or a house or a private plane? And so greed, disappointment and a sense of entitlement can spring from gratitude at the unexpected granting of wishes.

Then there is the transparency of it all. It’s a magical conflation of consumerism and generosity, of purchases with delight. Our love and loyalty are being unashamedly acquired, our emotions explicitly manipulated. We are asked to accept wholesale the premise that with great products comes great happiness -- especially if you fly WestJet.

As I spiraled down this cynical tunnel of resentment, I came to realize that, most surely, I am the Grinch. Can’t I just let it go? Can’t I just be gracious enough to accede to Westjet its success, to enjoy the spirit of the season and the nature of gift-giving? Am I truly the horrible one?

But I have come to realize I am not alone. Earlier today, my friend John Price wrote on his Facebook wall, “I’m sorry, call me a Christmas hating cynical bastard if you want but that West jet Christmas present prank is simply a heart string pulling public relations campaign which only further perpetuates the destructive tradition of buying and giving things we don't need… Would have loved seen [sic] that much money donated to a charity of some kind…” The MediaPost piece got a piece of similar feedback from Jim Thompson: “At the risk of sounding like a downer, I kept thinking that it would have been way better if they had used the money to buy coats (it can get cold in Canada) or toys for poor kids. The 50" TV was what pushed me over the edge.”

Notice a pattern here? All three of us feel bad about feeling bad. We are the Grinches, the Christmas-hating cynical bastards, the downers… But we are honest. Which is, it seems to me, what this video is lacking. WestJet is not your friend. It is a corporation trying to sell you airplane tickets. And that is a piece of information I give to you for free. Happy holidays -- and bah, humbug.

20 comments on "WestJet Santa Stunt Leaves Sour Taste".

  1. David Cooperstein from Forrester Research
    commented on: December 13, 2013 at 11:16 a.m.
    Actually, this is a replay of a similar effort undertaken by KLM a few years ago (KLM Surprise) to generate good will and social activity. Its a key effort for brands to help them stand out and doesn't really hurt anyone. This is the time of year when all walks of life try to visit their families, and the idea that making the flying experience better for seasoned and seasonal travelers shouldn't be a negative. I agree the 50" TV (cheap as they have gotten) may have gone above and beyond the sentiment, but its fair that not everyone can afford the things they want when they are traveling to see their loved ones with family in tow. It would be nice if WestJet and others offered a chance to give gifts to the underprivileged, but that would be a separate activation in my opinion.
  2. Jeff Robinson from JRC Limited
    commented on: December 13, 2013 at 11:23 a.m.
    I think you just need to appreciate this as marketing dollars spent in a way that directly benefits customers. WestJet does do a lot to support the community in many other ways. Have a rum and eggnog to get that sour taste out of your mouth.
  3. Eric Cohen from Macaroni Kid
    commented on: December 13, 2013 at 11:25 a.m.
    In the spirit of the Holiday, I leave you the wise words of Sgt. Hulka... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B65mtE2TN1w
  4. Ron Stitt from Fox Television Stations
    commented on: December 13, 2013 at 11:26 a.m.
    Weird analysis for a professional marketer. Even as just a consumer, I'd be inclined to say "lighten up and let go of the guilt" for just a little while. I think maybe you're reacting more to the hype, and maybe thinking this is getting more attention than it deserves - and I might not disagree with you there. But again, from a marketing p.o.v., it's a home run. Happy Holidays!
  5. Bob Sissons from Showdog Productions Inc
    commented on: December 13, 2013 at 11:29 a.m.
    As a marketing professional, I think it was a clever and relatively inexpensive promotion. Why do you think that all money should go to charitable causes. WestJet already does more than its share of assisting worthy causes. This was a lot less expensive than buying several TV commercials.
  6. Nick D from ___
    commented on: December 13, 2013 at 11:30 a.m.
    er... yeah. Some basic points here:
    a) you don't need to troll on this column. You have a regular column here, you don't have to generate clickbait.
    b) It's Christmas, just chill. Of all the offensive Christmas ads out there, this is not one.
    c) You don't really understand Canadian ads. They are generally warm, friendly, without the self-deprecating humour or banter found elsewhere. So this is perfectly fitting for the audience.
    d) get a grip.
  7. George Simpson from George H. Simpson Communications
    commented on: December 13, 2013 at 11:30 a.m.
    Given the number of companies that try to promote their work with charities (esp this time of year) such an effort might have provoked even more anger.
  8. Joe Mandese from MediaPost
    commented on: December 13, 2013 at 11:57 a.m.
    Kaila, thanks for saying what many of us were thinking. At least I was.
  9. Lisa Gangadeen from The 33480 Group LLC
    commented on: December 13, 2013 at noon
    They didn't have to give back some of their profits to their customers but they did! It's an amazingly generous gesture! I'm sure they give to numerous charities too already. Let's not over analyze and just commend them on helping us be happier during the holiday season. Getting into the holiday spirit is priceless, whether richer or poorer ....
  10. Carlos Pacheco from Boat Rocker Studios
    commented on: December 13, 2013 at 12:20 p.m.
    This is exactly how I felt about the whole thing. As many I held back making any public comment about it on social platforms since I'm connected to media agencies involved and I'm sure I would have gotten blowback from it. The whole thing felt....fake. WestJet is better than this... its a blatant make us a "viral video" play. The consumerism angle of it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
  11. Henry Harteveldt from Hudson Crossing
    commented on: December 13, 2013 at 12:28 p.m.
    I am an airline and travel industry analyst. I fully agree with what you have written. The WestJet stunt, besides being unoriginal (Spanair, a now-defunct Spanish airline, did something similar several years ago), was a masterful PR stunt whose long-lasting marketing value is uncertain. A stunt like this will be completely forgotten if WestJet experiences a major operational, labor, or safety problem. I’d have felt better if this event was the launch component of how WestJet was working to improve its abilities to enable its passengers to better personalize their journeys. Or, if the event was tied in to an effort to provide better, more creative travel shopping and purchase experiences. Or, if this stunt was associated with new ancillary (optional) product options whether from WestJet or its partners. I’d also have felt better if, instead of asking what the passengers wanted for themselves, WestJet had asked what they would like to give to someone else. For example, what would a WestJet "road warrior" business traveler like to give to her or his spouse, partner, or family? What charities or social service organizations would WestJet's passengers like to see helped? Isn't the holiday is about giving, rather than receiving?
  12. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited
    commented on: December 13, 2013 at 3:59 p.m.
    What would have happened if someone wrote college education ? Or bonuses to their employees ? Yeah, it was a cheap marketing ploy and not all flyers are wealthy or even financially comfortable. People fly relatives to can't afford to fly for a visit so assuming they didn't need anything is not a point. The annoying part is why other people who didn't get anything care what they missed and don't have anything better to do than to watch this ? For the most part these days, we don't get choices of airlines for where we want or need to go. Westjet may have gotten plenty of views, but you are not getting anything.
  13. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2013ac.com network
    commented on: December 13, 2013 at 5:46 p.m.
    The cynical attitude that this ad evoked in some people is laughable. "Santa" asked some people what they wanted for Christmas, and the gifts were given. A few dollars were exchanged for merchandise. No one got hurt. It was simply a cute ad, no matter who did it originally. Putting all this political-charitable spin on it is really petty. Could something more noble have been done with the money? Of course it could, but that could be said about anything, anywhere. Time to lighten-up and just enjoy the fun everyone had. We should never forget that even Scrooge eventually saw the light, nor should we ignore the very real fact that the givers had as much fun as the recipients.
  14. Kaila Colbin from Missing Link
    commented on: December 13, 2013 at 11:07 p.m.
    Wow, thanks so much for all the comments! It's funny how this video brings out such strong reactions from people -- wonder why that is? And I agree with many of the points made. Certainly most people have just taken the vid at face value: some harmless fun that is also a hugely successful marketing ploy. To be fair, though, just because I express a different perspective doesn't mean I'm trolling or aiming for clickbait… I just happen to have a different perspective. Surely the First Amendment allows me the right to share it?
  15. Rick Monihan from None
    commented on: December 14, 2013 at 1:16 p.m.
    I'm not opposed to your point of view, but I don't think it needs to be said. The spirit of the holiday is giving. Regardless of who you, or anyone (including WestJet) gives to, if the spirit is fulfilled, why does anyone have to make a snarky and anti-holiday commentary about it? There are times for snark, times for commentary, but this is not one of them. I can accept this for what it is, a marketing ploy that was well-thought out and executed. I don't see any reason to psychoanalyze the nature of receiving gifts you asked for - regardless of whether you 'should have' or 'might have' asked for a car, house or anything else if you knew what was coming on the back end. Frankly, if I asked for socks and underwear and got them, I'd be quite pleased (mainly because I ask for socks almost every year). Never underestimate the nature of people's reasons for asking for certain things, it could be exactly what they were hoping for. As for WestJet catering to some of the wealthiest of the wealthy in our world with their gifts, again - who else are they going to cater to? These are their customers. While giving to charity may be more 'fulfilling' to you or many other people, this was what they chose to do as a corporation and I can deal with it without commenting on what "I wish they had done". Because what "I wish they had done" has no bearing on anything that others do. You wrote this because you felt compelled to share how you felt - which is fine - but if you were being 100% honest you have to admit what you wrote is not in the spirit of the holiday, which is ultimately what you were commenting on to begin with. An unfortunate twist of irony, but that's one of the problems with going public with feelings. Everybody's got feelings, and most of us don't always share the same point of view on things. Sometimes feelings are better kept to ourselves or shared in circles with people we know can empathize. My feelings? Neutral one way or the other, both for your column and WestJet. These things are what they are, but I can appreciate that WestJet made an effort to stick to the holiday spirit.
  16. Rick Monihan from None
    commented on: December 14, 2013 at 1:26 p.m.
    For what it's worth, I realize some people will look at what I wrote and say I was posting my own feelings about this column, and that I may have taken an 'un-holiday' swipe at the column itself, which in itself carries a bit of irony. Perhaps that's true. But honestly, catering to clients is our business, and while I can appreciate the nature of what you are saying, I'm just not compelled to agree with it. Gifts are what they are. No need for me to dig deeper than that.
  17. Henry Harteveldt from Hudson Crossing
    commented on: December 14, 2013 at 1:40 p.m.
    I read that one passenger asked for a husband. The airline got her a Ken doll. They deserve major points for that.
  18. Mike Browne from BIG
    commented on: December 16, 2013 at 11:40 a.m.
    Kaila ... Come on! It's a story, it's advertising. Next thing you know you'll be PO'ed when you learn The Daily Show "isn't" a real news show!
  19. Kaila Colbin from Missing Link
    commented on: December 16, 2013 at 2:36 p.m.
    "Kids, if you're reading this at home, the Daily Show *is* a real news show… It is what it is, and that's a real news show. It's a verifiable fact."
  20. Walter Sabo from SABO media
    commented on: December 16, 2013 at 5:03 p.m.
    uh it's ok to feel good. no one forgets the brand name. their competitors will look at it and feel awful because all they offer are tiny seats and filthy bathrooms. bravo westjet, bravo.

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