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What Virgin Atlantic's Impossibly Fabulous New Ad Says About Its Management Culture

Some brand managers insist on tightly focused, tactical advertising with an emphasis on measurable ROI at the retail level. And then there's Paul Dickinson and Breda Bubear, the advertising and marketing chiefs at Virgin Atlantic, who just commissioned this ludicrous, fantastic "global" TV commercial (video below). Their brief to ad agency RKCR/Y&R apparently said:
Budget: Spare no expense.
Creative: Give us every airline ad cliche in the book. Make it look like a James Bond title sequence crossed with a Busby Berkeley number. Get plenty of references to Mad Men in.

And don't be afraid to make it look too gay!

It's a slightly baffling experience because flying on Virgin can't possibly live up to the over-the-top promises the ad is making. Will my flight attendant collapse into a puddle of milk when she serves my free ice cream? Will she really be a supermodel? And will she tuck me into a cloud when I want to go to sleep? (Of course not -- I took Virgin from Heathrow to Newark, N.J., last month and was surprised at how humdrum the Virgin experience has become.)

What the ad does do -- and this is super-important to Virgin -- is annoy its competition, especially arch-enemy British Airways. Virgin has had it in for BA ever since the latter's "dirty tricks" campaign -- in which BA was found poaching Virgin's passengers and tampering with its files -- was unveiled in the early 1990s. Just last year, Virgin chief Richard Branson suggested that British Airways couldn't survive without a tax bailout. He's still obsessed.

By positioning Virgin as impossibly fabulous, it suggests that BA is somewhat more dowdy, and tempts the older airline to up its play in a game it can't win. It's entertaining stuff, but it says more about the inner psyche of Virgin's management than it does about the actual experience of flying with the airline.


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