Potentially Offensive Travel Ads

Posted Mar 1st 2011 12:09 AMUpdated Mar 9th 2011 01:35 PM

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Spirit Air Oil Bikini Ad

Spirit Air

Forget their pretty imagery and seductive phrasing. A travel ad has a single purpose: to get you to spend your money. Sometimes, in their desperation to drum up business or create a buzzy campaign, advertisers fumble and manage to tick off lots of customers.

Spirit Airlines, which charges passengers extra if they so much as carry on a bag, was already the most tone-deaf of the U.S. airlines, but this ad, placed last June (left), repulsed even its hardened frequent fliers. In it, Spirit plugged its flights by making light of the BP oil spill. As dead wildlife and ribbons of crude washed up on Gulf Coast beaches, fouling an entire sea, Spirit launched this smug promotion of the East Coast, Cancun, and Puerto Rico, untouched by the disaster.

It was not only cruel to the many Americans whose lives were devastated by the spill. It was also a cheap shot. Making a buck off a calamity of unprecedented proportions? When it was suggested the ads might be insensitive, Spirit defended them in a statement: "The only oil you'll find when traveling to our beaches is sun tan oil."

You stay classy, Spirit.


Air Asia

Air Asia Offensive Ad

Air Asia



Dirty phonetics! Air Asia, a counter-culture low-cost carrier run by a protege of Virgin's Richard Branson, put out this one. Say it aloud to get the joke, but not in front of kids. Thailand's Phuket is one of the most popular beach destinations in Southeast Asia. The potty-mouthed potential to offend is pretty obvious here. But it also insults the reader, because it lampoons a popular and vital resort destination by reducing the Thai language to something that might make an English speaker titter. Would Bolivia advertise Lake Titicaca this way? Besides, Air Asia's pronunciation gag isn't even accurate: As one English-speaking resident noted, there's no F sound in Thai. Phuket is actually pronounced with hard P. If you're really being accurate, it sounds more like "Bukit." So Air Asia's ad also assumes Westerners are idiots who can't pronounce foreign words. Offense all around.

Avianova

Avianova Offensive Ad

Avianova



Just what is a customer supposed to expect from an airline if this is what inspires them to book a ticket? You can bet that they're not going for a crowd that prefers clean things. Advertising things with beauties is nothing new, but in this case, bare skin is all a customer can clearly see. It's not even possible to make out the name of the airline so it can make a sale. (We know: It's Avianova, a Russian low-cost airline based in Moscow -- which isn't a city known for its bikini usage.) Not even knowing what's being advertised is something that should offend Madison Avenue, too.

Bermuda

Vintage Bermuda Offensive Ad

vintage-ads.com

This ad (right) is so hard to look at it that it's a wonder that anyone could ever think it could be an enticing image. But, being a vintage ad, it keys up an unpleasant history lesson about how things used to be for travelers. For a century after emancipation, African-Americans were often relegated to service roles, particularly in the travel industry, such as railway porters and bellboys. The first porters on Pullman train cars were freed slaves, and by the early 20th century, Pullman employed 20,000 people, the largest group of black men in the country. White travelers, and those with money, came to accept the existence of a servant class that largely consisted of black men and women, and in fact, as with the Pullman porters, black workers often had a reputation for meticulous and attentive service. So, as subservient as the imagery is today, for people of the time this ad strummed the notion of a black man as a warm and hospitable helper who cared only for the pleasure of his white employers.

The stooped posture and exaggerated skin tone of the porter comes from another aspect of accepted racism in that era: minstrel shows and Jim Crow acts. The false stereotype of a black man who's only too happy to serve his white masters didn't die with slavery. It endured as one of the most popular archetypes of popular entertainment, and was carried out by both black and white performers. The image of a kindly black servant would have been familiar and comforting to many white consumers of the day. Now its dehumanizing quality it just makes us queasy. This ad sold Bermuda, a British territory, to Americans by calling on symbols there were likely to find quaint and comforting.

First Hotels

First Hotel Sleep With Us Offensive Ad

First Hotels



Every red-blooded heterosexual American man knows about the implied sexual promise of the famous French maid's outfit. Given that innuendo, how else can a person take this ad? If you're a frequent guest at our hotels, we'll let you sleep with our staff? First Hotels may not be leading with an accurate depiction of its amenities, and it's probably alienating most of its potential female guests, but it gets bonus creepster points for grafting elements of the Sexy Librarian on the tried-and-true French Maid look.

National Airlines

Fly National Fly Me Offensive Ad

National Airlines



When the photographer took "Cheryl"'s photo for this ad, did she know that National was going to write that little monologue for her? Probably: Although we'd never tolerate it now, National's "Fly me" campaign, which took off on the then-louche reputation of the flight attendant world, was controversial even in the early 1970s, and the airline even gave its aircraft female names to justify the innuendo of the promotion. Like the First Hotels' French Maid, this vintage ad uses an attractive woman as sexual bait. It's one thing to put a pretty person on an ad to catch the eye. It's another to coyly suggest that if you purchase the product, you'll be allowed to mate with her. The airline was folded into Pan Am in 1980 and is no more.


Jet Airways

Jet Airways Offensive Ad

Jet Airways



You would think that an Indian airline such as Jet Airways would be cognizant of the fact that the bindi (forehead decoration) has its origins in mysticism and spirituality and in some circles, it traditionally denotes marriage and prosperity. In India, it's common for priests to mark visitors to their temple with a dot. Yes, over time the bindi has become more of a fashion accessory, and there are few modern Indians who would take offense to this, which is maybe why the airline thought it could get away with sticking one on an American icon, even if she's already wearing a sari. But does this mean the Statue of Liberty is married?


Asia and Mexico

Orient and Mexico Offensive Ad

Boston Public Library / Mexican Tourist Association



When marketing a foreign culture to Americans, an advertiser must accept their potential customers probably know very little about the destination. It's all too easy to fall into oversimplified stereotypes of what your customers think they're going to find when they get there. Forget the obsolete verbiage ("Orient") of the ad on the left. It's the faceless mass of yellow people, armless as geishas, that calls up unwanted stereotypes of what Westerners assume Asia is like. The deco stylization of that one may get it off the hook for being truly offensive, but the Mexican depicted as a sombrero-wearing, poncho-flourishing, guitar-toting desert cactus discards everything cosmopolitan and modern about our Southern neighbor. Then again, the Mexican poster is a product of the country's official tourist office. Some of us, though, would rather have a richer understanding of the realistic picture of vacation destinations than what we'd find in an Epcot pavilion.


American Airlines

American Airlines Mother Offensive Ad

American Airlines

Does she remind you of your mother? American Airlines' ad promotes this woman's "maternal instincts," but her shapely legs and bedroom eyes suggest that if she's like anyone's mom, it's Oedipus's. Modern flight attendants are now considered the front line for flight safety (and add-on fee collection) and to the relief of airline staff everywhere, no longer marketed as sex objects. It's unlikely we'd see such a questionably suggestive ad today. Unless your mom charged you extra for tuck-ins and food.

Sure, you can't please people all of the time, and there's always going to be someone who objects to a daring ad campaign, even if it's done tongue-in-cheek. But whether you're offended by these ads or not, it's debatable how well they serve the travel product being advertised, and there's little question that few of them would pass without comment today.

Executive Editor Jason Cochran is online at JasonCochran.com and Facebook, and on Twitter as @bastable.
Filed Under: Best Of, Historic Sites

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172 Comments

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franktheac

I luved them!

August 12 2011 at 8:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
michaelpschmitt

Americans should be offended by dot head Liberty, not Indians

April 11 2011 at 2:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
friskylamb62

More liberals trying to find fault were there isn't any. They put a clown in office but whine about adds like these. With whiny libs like this writer, the USA is in big trouble!!!

April 08 2011 at 12:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Just Me

My suspicion is that,, aham.... executive editor Master Jason is actually a High School Junior, stuck in a high school library with a stack of nation geographic back issues, and no perspective. He will probably become a writer some day. Mom's contributions to the grammar stand out, but the article is more offensive than the Retro- ads covered in the article.

March 31 2011 at 11:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Griff

Much ado about nothing!

March 25 2011 at 7:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ralph

We love the one showing the black boy actually doing something. Great ad.

March 16 2011 at 8:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Bruce

I didn't find any of these ads or posters particularly offensive. A bindi on the Statue of Liberty's forehead--how could that possibly be offensive? It's not a swastika. "Oriental," as someone else pointed out isn't particularly offensive. Most East Asians I know, including my Korean sister-in-law, don't mind it. It simply comes from the Latin word for "east," and used to mean (to Europeans) anything east of Europe. Turkey was once considered oriental, though modern use generally means only the far eastern parts of Asia. The depictions of east Asians in the poster are in a cartoon-abstract style, but not demeaning.

The Mexico poster depicts a sombrero a guitar, a brightly colored blanket, and a cactus--all genuinely iconic of Mexico. I see all these on my annual visits to Mexico, both in more traditional, authentic forms and in the cheap versions Mexico makes for tourists. I've never seen the Aztec pyramids in the background, but would like to.

As for the ads that use potentially or overtly sexual imagery: they look the most dated, but the idea of being offended by them is also a bit dated. Modern ad people know that, while "sex sells," overly direct sexual imagery can trivialize a product or service.

I'm also not sure what's supposed to be offensive about the Bermuda ad. It depicts a black porter lifting a suitcase out of a carriage with two white people in it. I haven't been to Bermuda, but having spent years in Haiti--another black majority country--it isn't unusual to see a black porter (or black dentist, doctor, etc.).

Real racial, ethnic, and sexual stereotyping are horribly alive and well--and we must continually strive to free the world of hurtful practices. It does no good, however, to start imagining offense everywhere we look.

March 11 2011 at 5:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
muttzee

my goodness, the ads are funny-why are people such prudes?

March 11 2011 at 3:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
georgr

aw, just chill! its all funny

March 05 2011 at 11:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Robert Lilja

I loved the ads, mostly. A few noxious moments, but so harmlessly humorous, compared to the demonization of the author. What a set of whiny, politically correct diatribes!

The comment that the Bermuda ad was "so hard to look at" tells it all. Yes, the black guy was providing a service, and the white guys had the money to buy it. Do you think that, in the real Burmuda of the time, that guy was thinking, "Gee, I'm so demeaned to have to sell to people with white skin"? Hell no, he was happy to get a smile back and well-earned money in return his labors or goods. And those Pullman porters -- they were proud to serve. That kind of skilled labor is celebrated by unions every day, so why is the same scene demeaning based upon the color of skin? The author, of course, doesn't mention the fact that there is another black man in the background sitting on a carriage, and looking just as prosperous as the white guys in the foreground.

The indignance over using sexual content would be hilarious if it wasn't so sadly dated. This author undoubtedly still peppers his social conversation with sneering comments about about "society objectifying women." Haven't we got past this, with so many wealthy women in media happily using their sex appeal to promote themselves? Are they being manipulated? I don't think so. If a woman - or man -- want to use his/her sexual attraction to sell stuff, and the buying public responds to it, whose business is it except their own?

Whew!
B

March 04 2011 at 2:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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