Airline dining out on 'fake beef' controversy

5:29 pm on 6 July 2018

By David Cohen*

Opinion - The storm in a teacup - sorry, food tray - over Air New Zealand's decision to add a vegetarian burger to its menu on some long-haul flights is surprising in a country where vegetarian dishes have long been a fuss-free option for diners.

Stewardess holding tray with airline food on blue background.

Photo: 123RF

Air carriers, too, have a history of recognising that plenty of people don't eat meat, and plenty of those who do don't necessarily hanker after it for every meal.

Fly Virgin America in the United States, for instance, and you have the option of an autumn veggie wrap (with roasted pears and fig mustard dressing). Alaska Airlines has tomato hummus (whatever that is) and dark chocolate.

Elsewhere in the heavens, Korean Air offers an array of vegetarian meals , as does Lufthansa.

But Air New Zealand's latest, "fake beef", controversy over what's on some passengers' food trays may be less interesting than what the national carrier itself has been dining out on now for many years - which is to say, controversy itself.

In March, of course, there was a controversy over the carrier's safety video, which was filmed in locations such as Scott Base, Ernest Shackleton's hut and the Dry Valleys - continental neighbours, of course, to the site of Air New Zealand's greatest aviation disaster.

While nobody would gainsay the feelings of those who lost family and loved ones in the original crash, it's surprising that the thought of their likely response didn't cross the carrier's corporate mind.

A little earlier, of course, Air New Zealand was again in the news over its "controversial" puppet, Rico, who was eventually killed off after what seemed to be a fairly long run of 12 months.

In 2016, the airline attracted international attention for another "controversial" movie, er, inflight safety video, which made ample use of bikini-clad models and beautifully buffed surfers.

"Air New Zealand has a novel approach by theming [sic] flight safety videos according to its audiences' interests and their destinations," a spokesperson later explained. "The airline has come in for some criticism about its productions, but, it is clear that the messages are capturing the public's attention."

In 2014, the carrier was presumably thunderstruck when travel agents abroad invited potential customers to debate the merits of the Sports Illustrated models in the "Safety In Paradise" video.

Thoughtfully, perhaps, much of the related coverage in the mainstream media made much use of photographs of the "controversial" models controversially reclining on controversial beaches in their controversial bikinis.

Still, at least the "beach babes" were wearing something.

Another viral video had eight flight attendants adorned in nothing but body paint, their "naughty parts" thoughtfully obscured by the beverage cart and luggage, as punters were urged to splash out on fares that had "nothing to hide".

A touch superfluously, one of the featured attendants memorably said she felt "naked" during the exercise.

Memorability may in fact be the wider point of these and other similar stunts.

Controversy, after all, has its own marketing rewards guaranteeing as it does longevity, immediate attention and eventual popularity.

However a billboard advertising Beehive Bacon was not so popular last week and was dumped after it was criticised for making light of statutory rape.

Here are some other examples of when campaigns go wrong.

In a case study conducted by renowned marketing agency Moz it was found that controversy can be a good thing for companies.

Playing it safe often equated with boring marketing, which in turn doesn't pick up enough traction to get the content noticed.

But companies should be warned that this has to be handled carefully.

The controversy has an understood relevance. It must have safeguards in place to protect the core brand. And it mustn't feed too much to the trolls.

Including, presumably, those who like their burgers rare and meaty.

*David Cohen is a Wellington writer.