AirAsia pulls ads that critics say ‘promote sex tourism’

The airline said the campaign was meant to promote a new route between Australia and Thailand, but the double entendre stoked backlash online. Can the company make amends?

Air Asia crisis comms

AirAsia, a low-cost Malaysian airline, has pulled a recent campaign promoting its flights from Brisbane, Australia, to Bangkok.

The ads, which were seen on buses and at the airport in Brisbane, read: “Get off in Thailand.” Underneath the message, a sentence in a smaller font reads: “Fly direct from Brisbane to Bangkok.”  The ads drew swift criticism on social media.

Melinda Liszewski, activist and campaigner for grassroots organization Collective Shout tweeted pictures of the ad, accusing the airline of promoting sex tourism to market its new route:

Reuters reported:

The campaign aimed to promote Bangkok as a destination, “for example, get off the bus get…off the aircraft in Bangkok” the airline said.

However, critics argued that AirAsia has used titillating marketing messages in the past.

Liszewski tweeted images of previous AirAsia ads, in which the airline uses double entendre:

In a Collective Shout blog post, Liszewski wrote:

That this ad is a dog whistle—or megaphone—to sex tourists is not a mistake. The professionals who designed the ad knew what they were doing, the marketing team knew what they were doing, Air Asia knew what they were doing. Air Asia is known for its sexually exploitative advertising, they even exploit their female staff.

Following the online backlash, AirAsia issued a mea culpa and said it was removing the ads.

The BBC reported:

A spokeswoman for Air Asia told the BBC: “AirAsia takes community feedback extremely seriously and the airline sincerely apologises for any inconvenience caused from recent concerns raised.

“AirAsia can confirm the advertising campaign has ended and we instructed our media partners to have the advertising removed as soon as possible today from all locations.”

City and country officials have also responded to consumers’ criticism over the marketing campaign.

The Nation reported:

Brisbane City councillor Kara Cook branded the campaign an “absolute disgrace” and said “it should never have appeared on our city’s streets.”

The Australian regulator Ad Standards said while it had not received any complaints about the advertising on the bus, it had received one complaint about the same advertisement on a billboard.

The same ad is still on a billboard at Brisbane Airport, however the airport tweeted on Monday afternoon that it was being removed as a priority.

AirAsia isn’t alone in receiving backlash over its messaging.

Germany’s transport ministry recently was criticized for its campaign to encourage bicyclists to wear helmets. One image from the PSA shows Alicija Köhler, a competitor on Germany’s reality show “Next Topmodel,” wearing a purple helmet and white, lacy bra. Over her photo is written, “Looks like s**t. But saves my life.”

The Guardian reported:

… [T]he advert, which is due to be plastered on billboards from Tuesday, ran smack into criticism, with the women’s wing of junior coalition partners the SPD demanding it be halted.

“It is embarrassing, stupid and sexist for the transport minister to be selling his policies using naked skin,” Maria Noichl, chairwoman of the wing, told the country’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper.

The Local reported:

Family Minister Franziska Giffey also hit out at Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer of the conservative CSU party.

Posting a photo of herself dressed in a business attire with her bicycle on Facebook, she wrote: “Dear Andreas Scheuer: fully dressed also goes well with a helmet!”

Unlike AirAsia, German transportation organizations stood behind the messaging.

The Local reported:

Defending the advert, a transport ministry spokesman said: “A successful road safety campaign should jolt people and can be polarising.”

Officials pointed out that versions of the PSA feature a male model with the same messaging (and similar lack of clothing).

ABC News Australia reported:

“It’s important to reach the target group of young people because the helmet-wearing rate in this age group is terribly low. We succeeded in doing that,” Christian Kellner [chief executive of Germany’s road safety association] said in a statement.

“The helmet cannot prevent accidents, but it protects against life-threatening head injuries.

“We are very pleased that it is possible to take unusual paths with the Ministry of Transport.”

DVR president Walter Eichendorf also defended the advertisement, saying it was “deliberately controversial” to kickstart conversation.

What do you think of the messaging, Ragan/PR Daily readers?

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