A Spirit Airlines ad that features a sexist joke about the BP oil spill is just the latest in a string of lame and offensive ads produced by the discount jet company. Many of Spirit's ads have been so bad that most companies would consider them damaging if they appeared for their brands. The fact that Spirit keeps running them and stays in business suggests that the company doesn't have a "brand" as such -- it's merely a generic provider of cheap tickets.
That notion, in turn, says something disconcerting about the practice of advertising. Companies do it to increase sales and burnish their corporate images. But if the company with the most sophomoric advertising in the country can stay in business simply because it also offers low prices, then its advertising -- and by extension the advertising of any discount provider -- may mostly be a waste.
The new ad shows a girl in a bikini under the headline, "Check Out the Oil on Our Beaches." It was preceded by a web ad showing a tiger driving an SUV into a fire hydrant for its "Eye of the Tiger sale."
Before that was Spirit's "That's Low" promotion, using an ad in which a man reassures his friend in a phone call that his mom can't possibly cheating on his dad. The mom is lying next to him in bed.
Spirit has also done a "threesome" sale and a "Cheap and Easy and Nothing to Hide" sale. The company was once chastised into withdrawing a "Hunt for Hoffa" video game, a reference to the missing union leader presumed murdered by the mafia.
If you think Spirit is an aberration, think again. There's precedent for this. Golden Palace, a casino brand, once sponsored a woman who got the company's logo tattooed on her face and the birth of two women's babies.
Golden Palace and Spirit are just two of many brands that rely almost entirely on shock tactics for publicity. They do this to "break through the clutter." This is advertising's central contradiction in terms: The only way to break through the media clutter is to produce more advertising, which is by definition more clutter. In those lights, this isn't Spirit's fault. It's simply obeying the logic of a vicious cycle that existed long before someone discovered that pictures of half-naked women make sales.
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