Cockpit Oral Sex Photo Scandal Threatens to Delay Cathay's Global Ad Campaign

That's Not What McCann Erickson Meant By 'Makes You Feel Special' Tagline

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Raunchy cockpit photos involving a flight attendant in uniform and a pilot are expected to delay the launch of the next part of Cathay Pacific's global ad campaign by the Asian airline's longtime ad agency, McCann Erickson.

The photos came to light in recent days as the Hong Kong-based airline was preparing to unveil the next phase of its "People and Service" ad campaign. Featuring shots of employees in both uniform and casual clothing, the ads share personal stories like that of the photogenic flight attendant who previously taught arts and crafts to elementary school students.

The slogan: "Meet the team who go the extra mile to make you feel special."

That advertising tagline now appears unfortunate in light of the photos, published in Chinese-language newspapers and then widely circulated online last week. They included a close-up of the woman, wearing the airline's eye-catching red flight-attendant uniform, performing oral sex on a man dressed in street clothes. According to media reports, the pilot has reportedly said the images were stolen from his laptop and distributed illegally.

"The timing of this scandal really could not have been worse in marketing terms," the South China Morning Post quoted an unnamed Cathay Pacific exec as saying. "A whole new set of pictures of staff in off-duty poses has been taken for the next phase of what has been an enormously effective global campaign. But the scope for the slogan and the campaign to be misinterpreted, or ridiculed and lampooned, in light of the cockpit incident is obvious. So it looks like it's going to be postponed at least for a while."

Executives at McCann Erickson and Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong did not return messages Monday seeking comment, and it is not known what will happen to ad space already purchased for the campaign.

Still, analysts are giving Cathay Pacific -- a leader among premium airlines that target the lucrative first- and business-class flyer segments -- high marks for crisis management and say the airline should be able to rebound quickly from the scandal.

"When it comes to protecting the brand, you need to act swiftly, and they've done that ," said Shashank Nigam, CEO of Singapore-based airline brand consultancy SimpliFlying. He noted that Cathay Pacific's CEO, John Slosar, issued a statement quickly, announced that the pair in the photos no longer work at the airline and also that an investigation showed there was no reason to believe the plane was in the air at the time the photos were taken.

"Sex scandals and other distractions happen to quite a number of companies around the world and it's unfortunate that it's happened to Cathay, but I think they've dealt with it in the correct way and they'll just move forward," said Shukor Yusof, an aviation analyst with Standard and Poor's in Singapore.

Mr. Nigam praised Cathay's marketing efforts, saying they are among the few premium airlines in the world actively engaging consumers on social media. In addition to targeting users on Facebook and Twitter, the airline recently invited 3,000 bloggers from around the world to attend the unveiling of their business class redesign, he said.

"They're very forward thinking in terms of brand engagement, even engaging the new customer of tomorrow," Mr. Nigam said. "They have realized that the brand is not what you say it is , it's what they say it is ."

The incident has garnered so much notoriety that Next Media created a short animated recreation of the event. Next Media, which publishes the Apple Daily newspapers in Hong Kong and Taiwan, is famous for its tongue-in-cheek news animations, including its depiction of Tiger Wood's car crash and fight with his wife.

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