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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 10, 2006

Airlines resort to sick-sack ads

By Laura Petrecca and Rachel Breitman
USA Today

Talk about a commercial flight.

Airlines, desperate to raise additional revenue, are offering advertisers opportunities to place their messages on surfaces that used to be left relatively untouched, including tray tables and air-sickness bags.

"Fuel prices are so high," says AirTran head of marketing Tad Hutcheson. "We needed new streams of revenue and found that we have been able to sell things onboard the airplane."

And they're finding lots of takers among companies that want to reach people who are often affluent and always captive.

Low-fare carrier AirTran charges companies as much as $50,000 a month to advertise on napkins, Hutcheson says. The airline also promotes Coca-Cola products on napkins and beverage cups as part of a larger deal with its official soft-drink provider.

Similar ads on napkins and tray tables generate about $10 million a year for US Airways, spokeswoman Valerie Wunder says.

That amount should grow this fall, she says, when US Airways introduces "sick-sack advertisements." Passengers who turn green in the gills will find sponsor names or logos on the bags.

The airline has gotten "quite a few calls" from interested advertisers, Wunder says.

But the concept makes some buyers woozy.

"I don't think there's one brand I would want associated with air-sickness bags," says Jeff Minsky, director of emerging media platforms at ad buyer OMD.

While it's unclear whether sick-sack ads will fly, other in-air initiatives have taken wing:

  • Tray tables. Verizon Wireless and Saab have plastered ads across the top of US Airways' fold-down tray tables, where there's lots of room for ad copy.

    "Fliers are strapped in and don't have much else to read," says Brian Martin, CEO of Brand Connections.

  • Seatback inserts. AirTran sells paper advertisements that fold over the top of seatback pockets, making them impossible to miss.

    Hertz seized the opportunity to attract customers by attaching coupons to inserts offering discount auto rentals as well as free upgrades.

  • Exteriors. Southwest Airlines custom-painted an entire plane to look like a basketball going through a hoop as part of a marketing deal with the National Basketball Association.

    "It's a huge flying billboard," says Tim McClure, co-founder of Southwest's ad agency, GSD&M.

  • Product samples. United and Continental offered goodie bags on some routes last year.

    First-class fliers on some of Continental's coast-to-coast flights received samples of Prada perfume and Ghirardelli chocolates, among other things.

    Continental didn't pay for the samples and benefited as the giveaway made the airline look like "the good guy giving away free things," says Chris Carbone, president of Premier Bags, which coordinated the effort.

    United also offers to distribute different companies' goods on meal trays and snack boxes, spokeswoman Robin Urbanski says. For example, last year it passed out breath-freshening Eclipse Flash Strips and Halls Fruit Breezers throat drops.

    Urbanski wouldn't disclose financial details.

    While airlines want to generate additional cash, many carriers say they have limits.

    AirTran said no to ads from a liquor company and a strip club.

    "We don't want an 18-year-old seeing this advertising," Hutcheson says. "We didn't think it matched our client base."

    United and Continental also fear ad overload.

    "We like to keep the cabin environment clean," Continental spokesman Dave Messing says.

    JetBlue shares that view, although it advertises its Dunkin' Donuts coffee on cups and on an in-flight TV channel.

    "The JetBlue experience is designed to be warm and inviting," spokesman Bryan Baldwin says. "It is not meant to look like a subway car."