Early this week, discount airline Spirit Airlines roused controversy with a web promotion that made light of the Gulf Coast oil spill. Within a day, the ad was pulled from Spirit's site and the notoriously offensive airline responded to criticism with a semi-apologetic press release.
In the original ad, Spirit exhorted readers to "Check Out the Oil on Our Beaches." Lest anybody miss the message, the ad also featured bottles of sunscreen printed in yellow and green, with the name "Best Protection." Get it, BP (BP)?
When called on the mat, the company offered a response that hearkens back to grade school. Using the "we're innocent; if you saw something offensive, it's because you have a dirty mind" gambit, the company stated "It is unfortunate that some have misunderstood our intention with today's beach promotion. We are merely addressing the false perception that we have oil on our beaches, and we are encouraging customers to support Florida and our other beach destinations by continuing to travel to these vacation hot spots." The company then reiterated its original point: "The only oil you'll find when traveling to our beaches is sun tan oil."
On the surface, Spirit's argument holds a little bit of water. After all, the company is headquartered in Miramar, Fla. Located on the eastern coast of the state, it has yet to be hit with oil from the BP spill. The same is also true of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, both of which are major markets for the airline.
But, given Spirit's long history of tacky, sleazy ads, its defense stretches credibility. The company prides itself on its offensive ad campaigns, and the controversy that they generate are a central part of its business plan.
Watch the video below to see the ads that Spirit pulled from its website.
Viral Marketing for 12-Year-Olds
In 2006, Spirit's first edgy ad, "Hunt for Hoffa," featured an online video game in which players tried to find the body of the slain labor leader. The campaign, which was designed to promote a $39 fare sale, was quickly inundated with complaints, and Spirit pulled it within hours of its debut.
Recognizing that making fun of mob victims may have been in poor taste, Spirit decided to tread water in the relatively safe shallows of smutty double-entendres. Its next sale promised "Many islands, low fares." The ad featured the acronym "MILF," superimposed on a map that showed the outline of a reclining woman. For fans of American Pie -- not to mention various news programs and media pundits -- the dual meaning of "MILF" was clear and, once again, Spirit found itself swimming in free publicity.
Needless to say, the feedback inspired Spirit to pursue greater. . .heights. In 2008, the airline resurrected its "MILF" promotion, along with a campaign that announced "We're Having a Threesome!" offering "three sales in one." Earlier this year, Spirit took the jokes a step further with ads promising MUFF (Many Unbelievable Fantastic Fares) "to DIVING destinations." Get it, Beavis?
In 2008, Spirit also launched its first attempt to use oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico as a selling point. Its "Offshore Drilling" ad campaign managed the neat trick of linking cheap flights, cheap sex and cheap gasoline in a stunning display of... well, cheapness. Featuring the comely curves of a bikini-clad swimmer juxtaposed against an oil derrick, the ad proclaimed "We Believe in Offshore Drilling." Lest dirty-minded viewers think that the ad was about -- gasp! -- sex, the commercial's copy went on to assure readers that "We believe in offshore drilling and other plans that will help keep fares low for you." Like, um, windmills and... stuff.
Doesn't Play Well With Others
Every so often Spirit leaves its adolescent humor comfort zone in order to humiliate others. While the Hoffa campaign taught it that mocking dead people can backfire, there isn't any rule about going after people who are above ground. Before the "Oil on our beaches" promotion, the best example of Spirit's attempts to target others was probably the "Eye of the Tiger" ad campaign, which capitalized on Tiger Woods's woes. Featuring a baseball-cap clad tiger behind the wheel of a wrecked SUV, the ads promised $9 fares.
Sometimes, Spirit even combines sex and business, as in its attack on Virgin airlines. Last year, the competing carrier launched direct flights to Fort Lauderdale from Los Angeles and San Francisco. Feeling the competition, Spirit announced that "We're No Virgin: We've Been Cheap and Easy For Years!" Take that, Richard Branson!
Bad Taste, Better Profits
When it comes to smutty ads, it isn't all just "fun and gams" for the folks at Spirit. While the airline's ads have earned it a reputation for bad taste, they've also helped it save a lot of money on advertising. According to CEO Ben Baldanza, the company's "edgy, viral marketing" was so effective that Spirit was able to cut advertising expenses by 80% between 2006 and 2009.
At the same time, Spirit has also cut services to customers, becoming the first company to charge for water and checked bags. Like the flyer's ads, its cheapness has drawn sharp criticism. In one case, Baldanza replied to a complaint by telling a customer-service representative that "we owe [the customer] nothing as far as I'm concerned. Let him tell the world how bad we are. He's never flown us before anyway and will be back when we save him a penny."