The New World of Travel: (Useless) Advertising Everywhere

10 hour-plus flights have a way of separating the travel pros from the amateurs. The pros know – download what you need, get situated, figure out the time change and rest accordingly, stay busy, and move once in a while. Those on their first real long flight are easy to spot – bored out of their mind or heavily medicated, and a look like they just got hit by a truck. After traveling on long-haul flights for more than 30 years, I know the consequences of not being prepared, and I know what to expect.

Or so I thought.

One small perk of longer flights is that they actually make an effort to feed and water you. Granted, the food never really achieves a spectacular level, but it is refreshing to have a flight attendant stop and take a moment to make sure you have what you need. In contrast to the shorter flights, where the attendant throws two pretzels at you and madly cackles over your foolish need for sustenance.

On such a recent long haul flight, over the first in-flight meal, I developed a serious sense of unease. It was not the food, the two pea sized meatballs were immensely satisfying, but rather, what was under the food. Contently sitting in the shadow of my tray, under the overcooked rice and matchbook sized salad was an advertisement.

The piece of paper, lurking like a grandparent on Facebook, was waiting for me to finish my meal and shuffle the containers around to spring it’s message upon me. It made me ill. Can I not have a terrible meal in a tiny seat on an overpriced flight without one advertisement?

Worse, what was the ad’s message? Donate to a worthy cause like hunger? (I did just eat) No. A special deal on the next flight? (Repeat business IS the best) No again.

It was an offer to get a discounted photo book from an online photo printing company.


I found myself bristling at the very presence of this advertisement. I am well aware that advertising is becoming increasingly pervasive in our daily lives, but a substantial portion of it can be effectively ignored and, the core tenet that you can PAY to reduce advertising has remained largely intact. Obviously I was wrong when it comes to flying.

As a result I became immensely aware of every message around me. Luckily the attendants haven’t started wearing brand patches, and the drinks aren’t sponsored by Diageo or SABMiller. Rather, the advertising is a little more subtle and, in my opinion, much more disturbing.

Beyond the tray ad, I noticed the back of my ticket had an advertisement for another airline. You remember when long-haul flights featured free, current movies and free drinks? Gone. Now, you have to pay cable on-demand rates for movies, the drinks cost money, and, this really got me, the screen to choose the movie to purchase HAD AN ADVERTISEMENT on the bottom of the screen.

The most amazing moment came about an hour before we landed. The last meal was concluding, my screen was up since I was listening to music, and somehow, I got hit with four advertisements at once. The tray ad was back, although it was the same ad, an ad was on my screen for a luau at a place I just left, an announcer on the PA was offering a special deal on the airline’s new credit card, and the large monitors for each section were playing a car commercial.


Wasted Opportunity

After a few days contemplation, I realized what really bothered me about the experience wasn’t the presence of the advertisements. As a business person, I can respect, even if I dislike, the necessity to monetize customers whenever possible. It’s an important aspect of business, and if you don’t take advantage of opportunities, someone else will or you’re just leaving money on the table.

What really bothered me was how useless the advertisements were. They were nothing short of wasted opportunity.

Research has shown that contextual and situational advertising can be very effective. A billboard for a restaurant on an interstate, where people are probably hungry while driving, works. An ad for car tires on a cruise ship, not so much. Going back to the ad onslaught before the end of flight, it’s easy to see how little thought went into those ads.

Why try to sell me on a photo book when I haven’t even reviewed my photos yet? Why show me a car ad when I’m flying back to New York and the likelihood of getting behind the wheel, let alone buying a car, is pretty remote. Why sell me on an airline credit card AFTER I’m already 90% of the way home?

If you’re going to treat me like a captive with Stockholm syndrome and try to take advantage, at least be smart about it. Give me an ad under on my tray for a restaurant in New York. Don’t try and sell me a car, sell me Uber or Lyft to make my journey easier. And for the airline, don’t offer me intangible miles on yet another credit card, figure out how to get me to fly again soon. What’s worth more – a fraction of a percent on purchases I may not make or 70% of another flight purchased within 3 months through a 30% off promotion?

Ultimately, the experience brought home a broad feeling about the endless advertising we are constantly subjected to – most of it is completely useless, and worse, from a business perspective, grossly ineffective. I foresee a tremendous opportunity in the future as networks more intelligently enhance their targeting efforts to better customize advertisements to the context and situation in addition to the person.

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