Ryanair’s PR disaster

Updated on February 1, 2008

My post yesterday about Qtrax drew some comments disagreeing that it is the PR disaster I’d characterized it as.

Whether it is or not (and I think it is), let’s try this one on for size.

ryanair-hottie
Today, budget Irish airline Ryanair is in the public dock accused of crossing the boundary of taste with a provocative press ad to promote its latest low-price flight offer.

The ad in question is shown here, courtesy of a BBC report.

That report says advertising regulator the Advertising Standards Authority received 13 complaints from readers who found the ad offensive:

[…] after an investigation, the watchdog ruled the advert breached the advertising code’s rules on social responsibility and decency.

[…] The ASA told Ryanair to withdraw the advert and ensure its future promotions complied with the advertising code.

See the ASA’s adjudication report for the details.

But the airline has refused to comply, saying:

[…] "It is remarkable that a picture of a fully-clothed model is now claimed to cause ‘serious or widespread offence’, when many of the UK’s leading daily newspapers regularly run pictures of topless or partially-dressed females without causing any serious or widespread offence," said Peter Sherrard, head of communications for the airline.

"This isn’t advertising regulation, it is simply censorship. This bunch of unelected self-appointed dimwits are clearly incapable of fairly and impartially ruling on advertising."

Mr Sherrard added that Ryanair believed the advert was not irresponsible nor offensive and would therefore "not be withdrawing this ad" and would "not provide the ASA with any of the undertakings they seek".

Sherrard’s first point has some validity. Pick up any edition of a paper like The Sun, Daily Mirror or, best/worst of all, The Daily Sport, and you’d undoubtedly agree.

Yet I think that’s a pretty weak and ineffectiveness defence as you’re not comparing like with like.

It also displays a little arrogance where some humility might go down better: referring to the regulator as a "bunch of unelected self-appointed dimwits" is hardly going to get you much sympathy.

The key point to me is the ASA’s view that Ryanair’s ad breaches not only the code of advertising practice but also that of social responsibility.

You don’t agree, Ryanair, so what do you see as your social responsibility?

Meanwhile, the three newspapers which ran the ad have themselves said they will not run it again. They seem to understand what social responsibility means.

Is this a PR disaster for Ryanair? The ad itself is one thing; how Ryanair has responded to complaints and criticism is another. They’re on a pretty sticky wicket with this.

So it looks like it could be.

[Update Jan 31] I continue this conversation in FIR #315 podcast posted today, addressing some very good points made in posts by Heather Yaxley (it’s not a PR disaster, says Heather) and Dennis Howlett (who isn’t planning to fly with Ryanair any time soon).

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. John T. Mims, APR

    Their response is so over the top that I think that they are creating the controversy purposefully to get some free “advertising” for their special fares.

    And what will they lose? They will get coverage about the controversy. Their ad will appear on tons of news reports, and they might have some people say some bad things about them. Will anyone be so offended by the ad that they will choose to never fly with them again? More likely, many more people will check out their fares to see how low they are.

    The long-term damage is minimal, and I am sure they are looking at the potential of a really good short-term increase in sales.

  2. ShaneMcC

    I’m with John. Love ’em or hate ’em you, the one thing about RyanAir is that they offer very cheap flights. The more they keep their brand front of mind the more people will check their fares and buy their flights.

    Their offering is not about brand experience, or looking good. it is about cheap flights, nothing else.

  3. neville

    Sadly, I’d have to agree with you both re what Ryanair may lose or not.

    A quick search on Google News turns up an awful lot of media coverage of the airline, its cheap flights deals, and this ad controversy plus another one in France (even higher profile with the French president getting involved).

    http://tinyurl.com/3ywfh7

    It’s not behaviour that is socially responsible.

    It may be that a) they don’t care and b) people who fly with them don’t either. While the former may be true, I’d like to think that many of the latter will care.

    If sales go up, I guess that’s fuel to the fire that argues ends justify means.

    I just think they’re totally wrong in their approach and in how they are addressing the consequences.

    Everything has consequences. I do believe that such poor behaviour by Ryanair will haunt them and damage their reputation.

    Oh, as to whether it’s a PR crisis, I guess that depends on your point of view, definitions notwithstanding.

  4. Badger Gravling

    Maybe it’s just me, but I really don’t get how Ryanair has breached social responsibility? Far more sexually explicit advertising has existed to promote a huge range of goods, and more flesh would be on display walking down any UK High Street – even in January.

    Bearing in mind that it ran in national and regional papers, I’d question how much value to put on just 13 complaints from the total readership who would have seen the advert? Especially as my guess would be that it’s down to current concerns about the safety of schoolchildren, and a complete overreation…

  5. Heather Yaxley

    Neville – I am planning to fly with Ryanair very soon, primarily because they use Bournemouth which is much closer and more pleasant than Heathrow or Gatwick.

    However, the contempt they show to customers by charging for everything – even using the check-in desk – belies the cheap headline prices. That is probably going to end up losing them more business than this daft advert. How many people really just want to pre-book online and walk on with 10kg hand luggage just to get the cheap price (excluding taxes)?

    I’d prefer to use Flybe from Southampton, but they stopped the useful Toulouse destination and only start to fly to Perpignan from 1 March. As much as I object to the business strategy of Michael O’Leary, I’ve made a pragmatic decision.

    In my view it is time for the other airlines to exploit Ryanair’s weaknesses – including their crass advertising.

  6. Sallie Goetsch (rhymes with "sketch")

    It’s the kiddie-porn overtones that make the ad problematic. If they’d (un)dressed the model as a university student, I doubt anyone would have batted an eyelash. And Ryanair’s response to the complaints suggests they would be insensitive in other areas. Disaster? Perhaps not, but it’s likely there’s one to come in the future if this is their attitude.

  7. Allan Jenkins

    Oh, Hobson! PR disaster?

    You love the ad. Why else would you have renamed the photo “ryanair-hottie“? On the BBC, it was “Ryanair advert.”

    But I digress.

    I see nothing wrong with the ad. While cheap fares and illicit sex have gone hand-in-hand since the first charter vacation/holiday, one would have to be all-too-seriously literal-minded to draw a connection here.

    Ryanair did perfectly right to ignore the ASA. Pity they didn’t ask the ad agency to draft their response… a copywriter’s dream.

  8. Michael Blowers

    What about the Egg credit card story yesterday for a PR disaster? – from the coverage it got I can’t see much upside on this one. Anyone looking for an example for an organisation with masochistic tendancies should look no further!

    Egg said the 130,000 odd cancelled accounts were due to their enhanced risk, however the overwelming feedback from the cancelled account holders was that Egg made no money out of them becuase they paid off their balance each month.

    On one level its an organisation rejecting its customers and on a more sinister utter level corporate hypocracy, from the worlds biggest bank (Citibank) at a time when they need all the friends they can get!

  9. neville

    Heh! Good question, Allan! I saved the image file as ryanair-hottie.jpg because it’s a more apt description.

    And think of search engine keywords ;)

    I don’t like the ad. I think it’s puerile and in exceptionally poor taste. Unlike the 13 complainants to the ASA, though, I don’t believe it’s indecent. Yet I can understand why 13 people may think so.

    Sallie’s point is a good one – the kiddie-porn overtones.

    As for my PR disaster point (and I said in FIR #315 that I think it is a PR disaster, not a maybe), that’s mostly to do with the way in which Ryanair is responding to criticism including the ASA adjudication.

    Heather, I wouldn’t fly Ryanair by deliberate choice. Yet if Ryanair were the only option, then I guess I would. Does that make me a hypocrite? I don’t know (I don’t think it does), but I would do that only if there really were no other option to travel.

    Michael, that Egg story is only getting started. For me the credibility of it is stretched when the bank says the global credit crunch has nothing to do with it. I don’t believe that.

  10. Allan Jenkins

    I’d give you “puerile” and “bad taste” if I thought Ryanair was thinking “Now, how do we get sexually frustrated louts on our airplanes… any ideas?”

    They made ironic fun of a tired cliché, made ironic fun with a tired cliché. Using a model who is clearly not a schoolgirl (Sallie: go to a Halloween party next year. Count the “schoolgirls”… this IS a cliché).

    And the ASA should be ignored. They got this one way wrong…. probably a result of being old, conservative and politically correct.

  11. neville

    Can’t agree with you at all, Allan.

    Ryanair were (are) socially irresponsible with their ad. What may even be worse is if they did think it through the way you suggest.

    I don’t think Ryanair should ignore the ASA, whatever Ryanair or anyone thinks of the ASA. A far smarter approach would be to a) accept the adjudication and b) lodge an appeal. If you win the appeal, resume.

    But this is about bums on seats in a cutthroat business. So ends justify means, eh?

    Wrong, just wrong.

  12. David Q

    what is a ‘PR disaster’? this is anything but! obviously this ad was supposed to stir controversy and it has done just that.. fair play to ryanair! maybe a wrong title was chosen for this post as this is simply the opposite of a pr disaster! ryanair pride themselves on this type of attention so I guess the advertisment was effective then!

  13. treds

    Hi, Today i got to search on different sites when i see the nevillehobson blog i really very impressed that there is a great community where they comments on different topics, so i also relies that i can also participate in this so i write. I don,t know that what did you mean by PR Disaster? but i think that this add was argument and may be for the propose to achieve the fame.

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