Features

VietJet’s bikini marketing antics get red card, but is there a wider PR problem for Asian airlines?

Following the budget airline's backlash for using bikini-clad air hostesses to welcome home Vietnam's national football team from a successful tournament, Mumbrella Asia editor Eleanor Dickinson asks three Asia-based PR professionals for their views on the PR fail

The sexual objectification of flight attendants is about as old as the airline industry itself.

Since the 1960s, air hostesses have been portrayed as the sensual yet subservient attendee. And judging by ‘the bikini airline’ VietJet’s recent marketing efforts, little has really changed. You could even argue things have regressed.

In what was perhaps a rather tone deaf move given the #MeToo climate, the Vietnamese airline decided to bring on its fleet of scantily-clad air hostesses to comfort the country’s football squad on a flight home.  

Although VietJet, a company owned by Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao – Vietnam’s only female billionaire – has arguably built its brand on the back of using bikini-clad models, the ensuing backlash in Vietnam towards its most recent stunt suggests customers are ready for a change. Indeed, the company was forced to offer a contrite apology, although it has not indicated whether the bikinis will consigned to history in terms of its future marketing strategy.

Below, a number of Asia-based public relations professionals weigh in on the ramifications for VietJet; arguing the region’s airline industry across the board is ripe for a serious overhaul.

Scott Pettet

Scott Pettet, senior vice president for Asia Pacific at LEWIS PR

“Given the recent global spotlight on misogyny and the emergence of the #MeToo movement, this sort of exploitative conduct is becoming less acceptable. Brands should expect that consumers will have less tolerance for conduct or imagery that is sexist or misogynistic in nature. Combine this with the accessibility and reach of social media and you have the potential for a crisis that can have a significant negative impact on a brand.

“Perhaps the most striking aspect of the VietJet case is the response. For the CEO of an airline happily nicknamed the ‘bikini airline’ to claim that the show was spontaneous simply isn’t believable. And to further claim that factors such as harsh weather and ‘complicated procedures’ contributed to the ‘mistakes’ is patently absurd. This conduct would seem harshly at odds with the conservative communist nation that VietJet largely caters to. It’s little wonder there has been significant consumer backlash, with some committing to boycott the airline.

 “Note that VietJet isn’t the only Asia-based airline to come under the spotlight recently for inappropriate attire.  AirAsia has long flirted with high hemlines and equally low necklines. This did not go unnoticed by a New Zealand customer and long-time visitor to Malaysia, who complained that while on an AirAsia flight from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur, she was offended by the short skirts being worn.

“In addition, the Kiwi also claimed that on another AirAsia flight some months prior, the stewardesses blouse was revealing enough such that the top of the attendant’s breasts was visible. Interestingly, the complainant astutely highlighted the disparity in the attire versus Malaysia’s conservative, Muslim culture, claiming the airline was doing its home country a disservice.  For AirAsia, a carrier that relies on the good graces of the Malaysian Government to operate, this is an embarrassing predicament and one requiring careful management.”

Lina Marican, account director, Mutant

“VietJet has always been known for its raunchy marketing, and this stunt shouldn’t come as a surprise. In this instance, however, the stunt they tried to pull by riding on their national football team’s success has had regional fallout.

“It boils down to poor timing amidst global sensitivities around the treatment of women, fueled by the fact that VietJet is led by a female CEO whom netizens feel should be more aware.

“Having bikini babes to promote your products are a cliché that might impact on the bottomline when consumers choose to take a stand. For example, #DeleteUber made a comeback as sexist allegations surfaced early last year.

“There is an added cultural layer that brands need to be aware of in Asia, as the benchmark for what’s acceptable in this region might be a lot stricter than in more liberal markets.

“The shameless bikini babe play no longer has a place in any modern marketing campaigns and this should only be seen as an opportunity for VietJet to take a step to evolve into something better. The bikini play just managed to cheapen what had the makings of a great campaign.”

Oliver Budgen, Bold Media head of APAC

“PR in recent years has made an economy out of being provocative, and this appears to be another well-intended attempt to leverage attention out of controversy.

“Brands showing women in bikinis is nothing new and actually quite a stale tactic. Given the current climate though, it might be a case of mediocre idea, but wrong place, wrong time.

“Building controversy works for some brands, particularly when looking to build new audiences, but the airline industry relies heavily on maintaining customer loyalty and has already had more than its fair share of negative headlines in recent months. Adding more shock-marketing on top of this may well end up damaging the brand.

“The airline’s prompt apology and retraction is the first right step from VietJet in managing the situation, but I think the lesson here is that an “improvised move” on social media from a brand can have just as much impact as a major marketing campaign and needs to be approached just as carefully from the outset.”

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