Are airlines pulling our leg or have ads gone down the pan?

An American Airlines ad that suggests its spacious seating is the equivalent of offering travellers their your own private lavatory doesn’t wash with Iain Murray

You, dear reader, probably know more about literary deconstruction than I. My understanding is that you take a work of fiction, say Pride and Prejudice or Tess of the D’Urbervilles, break it down into its constituent parts, pick up each in turn, revolve slowly in the hand while adopting the ruminative expression of a half-curious chimpanzee. And that’s it. Job done.

Well, it occurs to me that a similar technique might be applied to advertising, with results every bit as illuminating. It is with that aim in mind that I embark on this, the first in an occasional series of deconstructions.

I have chosen for this experiment an ad currently running in the national press for American Airlines. Let me start by describing it. It takes up a half page and comprises a colour picture with one line of text. The picture is of a young female, aged, I would guess, between 18 and 25, seated on a lavatory.

Don’t get me wrong. She is not sitting on the lavatory in the way that people do when they are using it in the normal way. Rather she is sitting on the closed lid with her back resting against the cistern. Her knees are drawn up, her heels are balanced on the front edge of the seat. Resting on her knee is a red pocket book, which she holds in her left hand while making notes with a pen held in her right hand. The viewer sees her as if he (or, in the circumstances, preferably she) were standing behind her left shoulder. We see her face partially and only in profile, for most of it is concealed by loose, shoulder-length blonde hair. She is wearing nothing but a flimsy, transparent top and knickers with a floral print. The room in which she is thus engaged makes for a good-sized convenience and is equipped with washbasin, towel, looking glass and shaving mirror. On the floor beneath the basin there is a pile of some eight books, hardback and paperback.

What are we to make of this rather charming scene? Our only clue lies in the caption beneath: “Fewer seats. More room to yourself. American Airlines.” Eight words that take some understanding.

There are two ways of interpreting this commercial message – the literal and the allegorical.

First, the literal. Can it really be that American Airlines, recognising the barbarity of cramming passengers into rows of seats too small and narrow to admit any condition approaching comfort, has equipped its aircraft with full-sized lavatories-cum-libraries, in which passengers may strip to their knickers and bring their diaries up to date? If so, this would indeed be a hugely civilising development and one heartily to be commended. Unless one goes first class, air travel is seldom a comfortable or pleasant experience. To be able to rise from one’s seat shortly after take-off and retire for the duration to the undisturbed tranquillity of what Americans call the bathroom is a pleasing prospect.

Unfortunately, practical problems intrude upon the dream. How many full-sized lavatories can a passenger jet accommodate while remaining commercially viable? With the passengers all locked in their loos, stripped down and browsing, would there be anything for the flight attendants to do? Would they knock on the door or cough discreetly before offering something from the trolley? And what if the plane encounters turbulence? The lavatory in the picture is not equipped with a seatbelt. To be thrown from seat to ceiling would surpass any experience encountered in lavatories in the usual way, even allowing for the most acute indigestion.

We are therefore reluctantly obliged to fall back on the allegorical interpretation. Is American Airlines inviting us to believe that so few are the seats in its aircraft and so relaxing the atmosphere that, safe in its hands, we slide into a reverie that compares with the pleasure of being all alone in the loo, free from the encumbrance of either unwanted attention or outer garments and with the time and liberty to compile our memoirs? If so, it is a bold claim.

“Fewer seats. More room to yourself.” Maybe, but not quite to the extent suggested by the picture. It is one thing for an overweight businessman to stretch out his podgy legs and stab a laptop with a stubby finger, quite another for him to take off his trousers, curl up into a ball and retire into an inner solace. Other passengers might object. Unless of course they, too, were in their underpants and flicking with lazy distraction through the latest Jackie Collins. It is an unlikely picture and none too appetising to boot.

“Fewer seats. More room to yourself.” Yes, but not that much room surely? I mean, not the sort of room to compare with a whole lavatory to oneself. And not the kind of room to be able to be that private. Just a bit more leg room, really.

And that is the problem that the old flag-carrying airlines and their advertising agencies face. Unable, or unwilling, to compete on price with their no-frills competitors and with nothing much to distinguish one from the other, they are forced to seize upon small advantages and make them sound big. And that’s how fewer seats became a bibliophilic blonde in a washroom.

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