At one level, it looks like a David v Goliath sort of affair. The combined strength of the mighty airline industry and their all-conquering marketing departments and budgets on the one hand, and a ragtag bunch of pesky millennials on the other, with limited resources. The airlines have convinced travellers for more than 100 years that they should visit exotic locations, see their family and do business face-to-face. Lakmè will forever be the sound of BA; Peter Allan the sound of Qantas. It sounds like a terrible mismatch. Mind you, you would have got good odds betting on David the first time. Now, it seems he might be worth a cheeky punt again. At least each-way.
For all the marketing genius of the airlines, for all the well-oiled machinery, orchestra, and hotshot advertising agencies they can line up, they are being subject to what is known as ‘Brandalism’ attacks across Europe . Those pesky millennials have launched a subvertising campaign, hijacking billboards to put up posters attacking the environmental record of the airlines . They poke fun at the airlines’ claims of environmental do-goodism. It is fair to say that the pesky millennials are not buying the greenwashing. And if there is one thing that the smooth operators of airline marketing cannot handle, it is being the butt of the joke. The advertising folk want you to focus on the caviar, not the puns .
Environmental campaigners have opened a multifront attack this month. It would be wrong to call them ‘the environmental lobby’, for two reasons. First, they are not being coordinated in accordance with some secret Grand Plan. No, the green movement moves in mysterious ways, more like a wheelbarrow full of snakes than anything else. Secondly, there are huge splits in Team Green between the well-established NGOs and the many radical fringe groups. Each regards the other with suspicion. The view from the fringe is that the established NGOs are considered exactly that – established – and thus very close to having sold out. To be inside the tent is to be inside the tent, they argue, and thus, inevitably, open to compromise and accepting of procedure and procedural delay. If you consider the situation to be critically urgent, delay is an anathema.
Last month, ahead of the tri-annual ICAO Assembly, one of the better-known well-established NGOs, Transport and Environment, took the fight up to CORSIA , noting that for €3.00 you could salve your conscience whilst flying trans-Atlantic. Bargain. But in the framework of ICAO this is to be expected; part of the ritual dance that is an intergovernmental meeting of any type. These NGOs know the rules; they are house-trained as far as the other delegates are concerned, and thus they are tolerated. The established NGOs such as T&E are part of the furniture, part of the liturgy. They do what is expected of them, and then, as expected, they are ignored.
The guerrilla attacks that fringe groups mount, on the other hand, are harder to foresee and harder to wave away. Particularly if they are witty and attention grabbing. To suggest that BA is going green by installing a golf course in the business class cabin for example, to mock KLM’s ‘fly responsibly’ tagline by superimposing an aircraft over a huge wildfire is different. The adverts even take on one of the usual criticisms of this sort of campaign – that it risks being counter effective. The risk is that once passers-by see the advert, made with huge attention to detail to ensure the look and feel of the airline it is attacking, all it does is trigger a synapse somewhere to remember to book that next holiday. One of the posters specifically addresses that point and may well be pointing out the next phase of this campaign. It talks of having ‘planes on the brain’. ‘Airline advertising is fuelling the climate emergency’ #BanFossilAds.
That is quite cunning. It is not the flying; it is the advertising about flying that is the cause of the problem. It is the inevitable aim of all advertising to create desire – ‘You Need Everything Now’ – that is the problem. Flying is not evil; it is flying using fossil fuel that is the problem. The advertising that encourages you to do so is the real problem.
Interestingly, this is exactly the playbook used by similar fringe guerrilla groups to campaign against smoking and, over time, against big tobacco. These groups deliberately positioned themselves well aside from the established public health NGOs. Their aim was to ban the advertising and then inform the smokers of the choices they were making. Over time, that will have the same effect, without ever being seen to be personalising the attacks against the smokers themselves. Is that where we are going to end up here? How long before the final step – a push to get a graphic warning about the effects of climate change on every boarding pass?
The anti-smoking groups faced incredible resistance from the tobacco companies, which only served to make them more determined. The campaigning groups dug in and turned it into a full-scale war. Litigation allowed discovery of documents. It was this dogged work that brought out the hidden corporate memos accepting that the tobacco companies knew for several decades of the health effects of smoking; that their lobbying organisations, many of which were in effect Astroturf ones, were wittingly using fake science, were deliberately delaying, disputing every attempt to show that smoking was connected to cancer; and were refusing to concede on any point. For some time, cigarettes sold in duty free stores at airports, for example, did not carry health warnings, on the grounds that there was no international obligation to put such warnings onto the packages, only national ones, and the need for such warnings was disputed. Recent disclosures concerning the fossil fuel industry and its greenwashing, is starting to sound very similar. We have started to see litigation against airlines on environmental grounds . Do not dismiss these actions as the work of crazies. It is increasingly clear that they are following a playbook.
As with aviation, the tobacco industry spent a lot of money on advertising, and on sponsorships, particularly of sport. The tobacco companies tried to scare regulators into not banning advertising on the grounds that it would ruin sport for generations. The anti-smoking movement, which by this time had coalesced into something more formal, put forward a neat work around. A tax on the sale of cigarettes to be put into a fund to buy out the sponsorships as they fell due.
Regular readers of the Aviation Intelligence Reporter will know that we have, for many years, suggested that this is something that the industry takes on, with both hands. It is a role built for IATA, to impose a fee per tonne, and to bring that money into the industry, not into a national exchequer. The money can then be channeled exactly where the industry needs it, rather than via national coffers, which are often beset by other pressing priorities. It would take courage to do that. It would take leadership. It would shut down these guerrilla attacks stone dead, without a campaign such as we are now seeing to ban advertising. It would show the world that we are doing something, not just fatalistically standing around with our cap out for funding. It would put the industry back in charge of its destiny. We could then get back to focusing on the caviar.
Andrew Charlton is the Managing Director of Aviation Advocacy. This piece was first published in the Aviation Intelligence Reporter, its flagship publication.
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