Frontier Airlines: Nope, That's Not How You Do Advertising

If You Show a String of TV Ads, You Generally Give Something in Return

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Traveling over the holidays can be painful, so it helps to have a survival strategy, such as playing Angry Birds, say, or spotting the ways diminished airline economics show up in new fees, plane filth and other indignities defining air travel today.

Anyone who flies is accustomed by now to paying for things that used to be free: checked bags, food, an assigned seat. Airlines such as JetBlue and Virgin America have used deft marketing to make us feel OK about it -- rebranding the emergency exit rows as premium-priced "Even More Space" seating, for example, in JetBlue's case.

We've also watched advertising creep onboard, which isn't a bad idea on its face. Planes pack in a captive audience looking for something to fixate on, with pretty good demographics and a mindset to accept new information. The worse air travel becomes, the bigger an opportunity sponsors have to make things a little better. If an advertiser is actually providing something of value, such as WiFi, a newspaper or TV service, that 's a win-win.

So I sat up and paid attention when my Frontier Airlines connection out of Kansas City interrupted the DirectTV service for a word from some sponsors.

Interesting, I thought, wondering where this was going. I'm a big credit-card swiper on flights and will generally swipe away for WiFi, movies or sandwiches. Now I was just being asked to watch ads in exchange for coming entertainment. The ads came from some pretty savvy marketers, too: Lincoln, Progressive , Marriott and Mazda. OK, it was a lot of ads, but no more than in a standard commercial break during "Two and a Half Men." Then came more spots from Fox and Frontier.

At this point I was wondering when we were getting back to the episode of "American Pickers" I was watching. They were in a Texas barn dusting off some pinball machines from the '70s. Not sure any of them worked.

Then came the punchline: an on-screen message saying if I wanted to get back to the show I should please swipe a credit card and pay $6. Now you tell me!

Congrats, Frontier, you've made the ads as punitive as all the other fees you charge for everything -- except this time you're asking us all to pay with our attention for, well, absolutely nothing.

I guess if you're an airline and you start putting ads in stuff it must seem like easy money. Media does it, so why not us? But that 's not how TV or any ad-supported media works. The implicit bargain is , if you show a string of TV ads, you generally give something in return. Keep in mind that I had originally expected to pay -- but you made me resent it by showing me a half-dozen commercials and offering nothing in return. Keep in mind that even after I paid your $6 for TV service, I'd still be watching the regular cable and broadcast ads inherent to TV.

Imagine trying to pitch a major brand advertiser on the opportunity to sponsor nothing. Or how about an online preroll in front of ... nothing!

I'd be surprised if those advertisers were aware of the way Frontier is showing their spots. But it's a cautionary tale. When airlines -- or any business or service organization -- charge a lot of fees, they create a bad experience, but at least the damage is limited to the airline. And travelers know what they're getting into when they fly. When airlines treat ads this way, though, consumers associate the advertisers' brands with that bad experience, which is probably not why those advertisers signed up with Frontier in the first place.

Some free advice to brands looking to reach air travelers and to airlines seeking new revenue streams: Make sure the ads bring something to the experience. Otherwise it's probably best not to bring them on the plane at all.

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