UPDATES: See bottom section for news.
Imagine: You’re all settled in for a long flight and ready for a bit of solitude (as much as can be afforded on an airplane these days) and a drink, when lo and behold, a flight attendant appears with a daiquiri. You didn’t order a daiquiri. In fact, you haven’t ordered a drink yet.
“It’s from the gentleman in 21A,” the attendant tells you, still holding the drink as though you really ought to take it. Across the aisle, the “gentleman” in 21A winks at you, and raises his glass. And introduces himself as the flight attendant sets the drink on your tray table and walks away.
This is how I imagine Virgin’s new “get lucky at 35,000 feet” promotion (for their seat-to-seat service) panning out for women. The actual service is pretty cool: It allows passengers to buy items for other passengers, so for example, adults traveling with multiple older children can feed and water them easily all with a swipe of a credit card in a seat-back terminal. But let’s face it: though some women will probably take the bait, this promotion is aimed at men and encourages them to aggressively pick up on women on Virgin flights. That’s not something I want when I travel. And it’s certainly not the attitude I want from the airline I fly with.
Virgin has long been my favorite airline. Their “Fear of Flying” program helped me fly again after years grounded by my terror. My daughter won’t fly any other airline. And now she very likely won’t fly at all until Virgin gets their act together and realizes that this promotion–aimed at men–targets women and essentially turns Virgin flights into flying meat-markets. For women–many or even most of whom experience unwanted sexual attention in public spaces on a regular basis–this means that Virgin flights will be potentially uncomfortable and even unsafe spaces. Certainly for women who don’t seek male attention when they fly.
I propose a hashtag campaign on Twitter similar to the #notbuyingit campaign aimed at companies that exhibit, promote, or support sexist behavior. Please help me tell Virgin we’re #notflyingit until they drop this promotion and apologize for putting women on the menu.
What you can do to help get this rolling:
- Share this post on all your social media networks. Here’s a handy Twitter button so you can tweet it out now: Tweet #notflyingit
- Tweet to @VirginAmerica and let them know this is a bad idea. Here’s another handy button for you: Tweet #notflyingit
- Sign this petition asking Sir Richard Branson and Virgin to take a stand for women and end this promotion. While you’re at it, sign this one, too.
- Use the #notflyingit hashtag to tweet CEO @richardbranson and tell him what you think about this “get lucky” promo.Tweet #notflyingit
- Use the #notflyingit hashtag on Google+ to alert people to this campaign and make it easy for us to track who’s talking about it there.
- Email your friends and allies and ask them to participate!
This morning, I received an email from Jennifer Thomas, Director of Corporate Communications at Virgin America. Here’s an excerpt:
First off, we are sorry to hear your disappointment re: the promotion of the new seat-to-seat ordering feature. Please know it was absolutely not our intent with the service or the promotion to make anyone uncomfortable, and we’d like to chat with you (and our head of marketing Luanne Calvert) to discuss the intent of the campaign and your concerns in a bit more detail as well as explain the mechanics of the feature (namely that there is an anonymous block feature built into the service). I also wanted to pass along that the Get Lucky promotion itself actually endedthis Friday, so that campaign is no longer live and in the market. In addition, the only official photo we released of the service was of a woman ordering for a man (for what that is worth). Please know that we do take your feedback to heart – and will bear it in mind when evaluating future campaigns. But would love the opportunity to chat with you more if you were open to a call.
I was. So this afternoon–after sending along some links so they could make themselves familiar with the issues as some of us see them–I spoke with Jennifer along with Luanne Calvert, VP of Marketing for Virgin America. Jennifer seemed to do most of the talking, but Luanne chimed in a few times, especially with regard to the marketing side of things. They had, from what I gathered, four primary goals for the conversation:
- To explain how the seat-to-seat system works (again, there is a decline feature) and how it is being used by customers (primarily as I described previously: among people who already know one another or are already chatting amiably);
- To point out that the “get lucky” promotion (which ended on Friday 5/31 [yay!] but is still on their Facebook page and a contest was still running on their website the last time I looked) was launched in conjunction with their new Los Angeles-to-Vegas direct flights, and was intended as a “tongue-in-cheek” play on getting “lucky” in Vegas.
- To assure me that regardless of how I may have interpreted their marketing campaign (marketing being one of those things that “people interpret differently” according to Luanne Calvert, and I agree–to a point) they were absolutely dedicated to passenger comfort onboard their flights and would never tolerate any abuse of the system or harassment of one passenger by another. (In fact, they said that if they believed the service was being “abused” they would turn it off or otherwise address the problem.)
- To assure me that they had heard our concerns and would take them into consideration when planning future promotions.
I’m going to break this stuff down and fill in some details of our conversation, along with my own takes on…well, everything.
How STS Works
In her email this morning, Jennifer Thomas included the following:
The function itself was designed to accompany the existing seat-to-seat chat feature (something we’ve had onboard since 2007). There were actually similar concerns raised about that feature when we launched it – yet we have never received complaints since its inception six years ago. Most people use the service to chat with friends, family or co-workers traveling in the same party. Built into the feature, there is a function that allows guests to block all chat requests – or just a specific one, and as a result — we have not seen issues arising.
In our conversation today, Jennifer reiterated that the seat-to-seat system has a “decline” feature so you don’t have to accept anything purchased for you by a stranger. I explained that I would much rather opt in to such a service than have a request pop up on my screen while I’m watching my movie to intrusively alert me that “someone wants to buy you a thing.”
This brings us to the second part of point 1 above:
How People Use STS Now
Many people use the STS system. I’ve used it. It’s great! Here’s another excerpt from Jennifer’s email:
In fact, guests have enjoyed — and provided overwhelmingly positive feedback about — the chat feature since its launch: it makes the flight experience a bit more social. And as you note, the seat-to-seat delivery feature grew out of a common request from family members and friends flying together in different rows — with the addition of the new remote ordering feature, for example, a guest in one row can now order and pay for their friend who may be traveling in a separate row.
Yes. This is how people mostly use it. And I sincerely hope this promotion doesn’t result in more men inflicting unwanted attentions on women. But again, that’s only part of the problem.
The “Intention” of the “Get Lucky” Promo
Luanne Calvert wanted me to know that the “get lucky” campaign was meant to be “fun” and “cheeky” and that they didn’t intend to offend anyone. I explained that the promotion appeared to be encouraging people to use it as a pick-up tool, and since the primary aggressors in these situations are traditionally men in our culture, that means encouraging men to hit on women on an airplane, and that many women don’t relish that idea.
“I’m not sure what your experience is,” I said, “but a lot of us feel like we run a gauntlet of unwanted attention wherever we go.” A moment of silence, then they assured me that they wanted people to be comfortable on their flights and again, this was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, a Vegas tie-in, etc.
I read Sir Richard’s quote: “I’m not a betting man, but I say your chance of deplaning with a plus-one are at least 50 percent.” They pointed out that the promo video (from which that quote was taken) was full of silly stuff like puppies and space ships and was meant to be funny. I pulled up and read to them from another article where Sir Richard talked about “dating” being the next big thing, the feature people wanted on airplanes that he was going to give them. They repeated that no one seemed to be using STS in any objectionable way and that they would take action if they ever did get complaints. (They also said they keep a close eye on alcohol consumption, which reduces the likelihood of drunkenness contributing to any potential problem.)
Dedicated to Passenger Comfort
Thomas and Calvert seemed genuinely to want me to feel like I could comfortably fly Virgin America without fear of harassment by other passengers. They reiterated several times how important it was that people feel comfortable on their planes. Unfortunately, they seemed to think that the discomfort with the “get lucky” promotion was based on a) lack of context and b) misinterpretation of the intention of the campaign.
Throughout the conversation, I pointed out that the feature itself was not the problem, but that the marketing was problematic. At one point Luanne said, “It’s regrettable there has been some misunderstanding of the campaign,” and reiterated that with marketing, a lot is open to “interpretation.” I think it was around this time I explained that, to my thinking, intention didn’t let them–or anyone–off the hook. That when you realize you’re contributing to the problems we all face, sometimes you have to take a step back and say, “Ok, that wasn’t what I intended, but I understand why it was problematic (here is me explaining my understanding of the issues) and I apologize.” I said this is something people like me do all the time. And that those of us who care about this were counting on them to do that: to say–not just to me on the phone, but to all of us–we get what the problem was with that promotion, and if we had to do it over again, we wouldn’t.
I recommended several times that they consider publishing such a statement: the apology we requested for making us feel commodified. Each time my requests were met with silence followed by assurances that they heard me and that this feedback would “inform our thinking” in the future. “We’ve responded publicly to feedback about this in the past,” they said at one point. There was a news story out there, and they promised to send me a link.
Finally I took a deep breath, sighed, and took another.
“Ok,” I said, “I just have one more question for you: Would you run a promotion like this again?”
Laughter. “We’d call you first!” someone said. I think it was Luanne.
Jennifer Thomas and Luanne Calvert listened. They gave me some of their time today and treated me with respect and for that I’m grateful. I received a link in email to the news story containing Luanne Calvert’s statement. Here’s the relevant excerpt:
Using the seat-back computer on all Virgin flights, passengers can order drinks or food to be delivered anywhere else on the plane. Perhaps you want to treat a travel companion — or perhaps you’ve noticed a cute brunette in 14A?
Luanne Calvert, the head of marketing, said Virgin America always wants to stay a step ahead of competitors with in-cabin features. The idea for seat-to-seat delivery, she said, grew out of the existing seat-to-seat chat feature on the seat-back computer system, called Red.
“Our in-flight system is about fun,” Calvert said.
She said it has been received well on recent flights since its rollout. But she squashed any suggestion that the service has turned flights into a 30,000-foot-high singles bar.
“The way people are using it in reality is with someone they know already. They say, “it was fun hanging with you. I want to buy you a drink.’”
So, the promo is over. Virgin America listened and apologized to me, but they have pretty much outright declined to make any sort of statement (which I would happily have helped them craft) that communicates their understanding of the reasons their “Get Lucky at 35,000 Feet” left a bad taste in my mouth and at least some of yours. I’m not at all convinced they get it, but I do believe they’ll think about all this the next time they plan a promotion. And I thank everyone who got involved for helping me to get their attention. In less than 24 hours, we made something happen–just a few of us working together. Thank you.
I’m still chewing on all this and will write a bit more later. Meanwhile, I welcome your comments (as long as they’re polite).
I just got off the phone with Jennifer Thomas, Director of Corporate Communications for Virgin America who says they’re anxious to discuss my concerns. I’ll be talking with her and Luanne Calvert, VP of Marketing, in a bit. Watch this space for news.
Why can’t you just refuse the drink?
Oh, I can and will refuse drinks from strange men on airplanes. But that doesn’t change the fact that many women will feel obliged not only to accept the “gift” but to pay some attention to the giver. Because that’s the point, isn’t it? And she’s on an airplane, so she can’t just excuse herself when she wants to get away. If the guy is nearby, she’s stuck.
What’s your problem? Buying drinks for women is a traditional entry point to dating!
Yes, it is. And when I go to a bar full of men and women hoping to meet the next love of their life, I am not at all surprised to receive a drink compliments of some man or other. I can take or refuse it, and if I’m at all uncomfortable, I can leave. When I get on an airplane, it’s for completely different reasons, and I can’t escape. That’s my problem with encouraging this kind of behavior as a way to “get lucky” on an airplane.
Why a boycott? Why not just write a letter?
This post and the hashtag campaign are sort of a letter to Virgin. Boycotts–or threats of them–are, in my experience, the most efficient and effective way to get a company’s attention. And I wouldn’t advise any woman who wants to fly peacefully to book a flight with Virgin until this changes.
Have questions? Ask in the comments below.
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June 3, 2013 | Categories: Life, Men, Women | Tags: #notflyingit, activism, airlines, feminism, Harassment, male attention, meat-markets, Richard Branson, seat service, sexism, transportation, unwanted sexual attention, Virgin, Virgin America, virgin flights | 43 Comments