But do advertisers risk damaging their brands by associating themselves with airlines, which are suffering an image crisis due to delays, cancellations, price gouging, bad customer service, and general incompetence?
The latest sally brings advertising to boarding passes, undoubtedly a high-engagement medium as they tend to be closely scrutinized by air travelers at least once. The participating airlines--American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways--are partnering with a new ad company, Sojern, to put ads, coupons and promotional announcements on boarding passes.
Currently, the ads are appearing only on electronic boarding passes that travelers print out at home, and travelers have the option of printing tickets without ads. But there's no reason the practice can't extend to boarding passes obtained at the airport.
This is just the latest step in a steady march of advertising into the physical space surrounding air travelers. It began with billboards and posters inside the airport. Clear Channel Airports, for example, claims to reach six out of 10 American air travelers every day (and is now rolling out digital signage).
Advertisers could also reach air travelers via the custom-published airline magazines, distributed free in the facing seat pocket. And place-based video networks, like CNN Airports, offered TV air time. Then JetBlue began installing video screens in the facing seatback, inspiring a wave of imitators.
The key selling point of all these media--the opportunity to reach a captive audience--has drawn innovators looking to exploit the same connection via new platforms. In 2003, Las Vegas-based SkyMedia International introduced service that prints removable ads directly on tray tables; the first airline partner, America West Airlines, launched with advertisers including Mercedes-Benz, Bank of America and the History Channel.
Storage bins also carry ads.
A company called Advent Advertising, based in Raytown, Mo., offers a service to print ads--measuring 8 inches by 20 inches--on the outside of storage bins. In 2006, a company called SecurityPoint Media, based in St. Petersburg, Fla., began testing ads in carts, tables and bins for personal belongings at security points in LAX. Subsequently, SecurityPoint Media scaled up the program through partnerships with airports around the country.
There are now so many ad platforms in planes and airports, in fact, that companies are popping up to aggregate them--giving media buyers a single point of purchase. One such company, InterAir Media, offers platforms including plane exteriors or "wraps," cocktail napkins, "sponsored seats," carpets, in-flight handouts, beverage carts, ticket jackets (to complement the boarding pass), beverage cups, meal trays and gift bags. Among InterAir's more interesting offerings: lavatory doors and airsick bags. One campaign for Capital One, centering on images of piggybanks painted on the outside of planes, also included "piggy noses" for passengers and "piggy hats" for flight attendants.
But given the general decline in the quality of air travel in recent years, has the phrase "captive audience" taken on a more sinister meaning? Do advertisers risk consumer backlash by positioning themselves on every available surface, when passengers are distraught and angry at the airline itself?
According to the "Air Travel Consumer Report" issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the overall percentage of domestic flights arriving on time in the United States fell from 74.2% in the fourth quarter of 2007 to 70.8% in the first quarter of 2008.
Meanwhile, the number of passengers denied boarding involuntarily because flights were oversold rose at 8 out of 18 airlines tracked by the USDOT, including AirTran, United, Southwest, US Airways, American Eagle, Comair, and Atlantic Southeast.
Given the vagaries of human psychology, it doesn't take much for a brand to get mixed up with these failings in the minds of consumers, according to Denise Lee Yohn, a branding consultant who has worked with companies including Sony and Jack in the Box. Yohn warns that brands should be careful about advertising in environments "like unpleasant travel venues" because of the human tendency to "subconsciously associate the emotions we feel with the environments we experience them in."
Because these associations tend to get ingrained, Yohn explains, "by advertising in the usually highly stressful and negative environments of air travel, brands risk subconsciously associating themselves with the stress, fatigue, and frustration that people feel in those environments." Worse still, there's the possibility that "people will subconsciously experience those emotions when they encounter the brand in other environments."
Yohn adds that travelers may also make these connections at the conscious level: "Brands make statements about themselves by where they're seen. By advertising on tray tables and even luggage carousels, brands are saying they are a part of the air travel experience." This may give advertisers pause, considering that many travelers view the experience as a painful necessity at best.