Ben Welsh
Mar 9, 2016

Terminally bad advertising

M&C Saatchi creative chairman and frequent judge of outdoor-advertising awards Ben Welsh passes judgment on airport advertising.

Ben Welsh
Ben Welsh

I’ve been spending a fair bit of time in airports lately. I’ve also spent a fair bit of time judging outdoor in various award shows—the latter sometimes the cause of the former—so I thought it would be fun to do my own judging of airport advertising.

I’m not a big fan of airports. True, there’s a moment of excitement when you get there: the sense of adventure, the journey into the unknown.But then it becomes a series of queues, forms, X-rays and the like, all to be admitted into what looks a lot like London's Westfield shopping mall. (Maybe Westfield should set up a business managing airport shopping?)

And then there’s the architecture. Airports express power much like cathedrals used to, so the architects get some good briefs. Take Madrid. Richard Rogers did a great job on that one, and thanks to a strike by Iberia I had a full 12 hours to appreciate it.

So airports can be good ads for architecture companies. But what about all the more overt advertisers?

Well, most of it is shit. Written for...for.... That’s just it: Who? A billionaire businessman from Guangzhou looking to make another billion? The next Richard Branson? It’s all a reflection of the ego of the company and its aspirations rather than any real insight into its audience—unless mirroring egos is what being a billionaire is all about. I’m clearly not the target audience, but I don’t think that’s why most of the work would have been invisible if I hadn’t been looking out for it.

Nothing is related to the journey you are on. The emotions of a traveller, which are right up there, are completely overlooked.

HSBC is a proud exception. Buying all those air-bridges all those years ago was inspired. Vodafone did the same thing when it owned luggage trolleys, but HSBC has stuck with it, which must mean it’s working. Not sure it works for me. I feel unworthy of their business, lacking the entrepreneurial and ambitious spirit of their target audience.

No one seems to be doing anything interesting on a tech front, which seems like a lost opportunity given the millions of frequent flyers walking through the place clutching their mobile phones. Where are the beacons linking me to 10 percent off Bowmore whisky? Or a free call home?

However, three things did stand out. And while you may not consider them ads, they certainly say a lot about the brand.

  1. The big Red Roo on the tail of a Qantas A380, or any plane tail seen by its compatriot traveller. When I first arrived in Australia I can remember bursting into tears on seeing a British Airways 747 take to the skies. An example of a big logo working.
  1. The X-wing fighter, TIE fighter and R2-D2 at Singapore's Changi airport. Actual size! Imagine all the social selfies spreading their way around the world from those three installations. Brilliant for Star Wars and Changi.
  1. But the winner is… Qantas International's First Class Lounge. I don’t fly first class, but I am fortunate enough to be Platinum, so I get to go into the lounge, and it’s the highlight of the trip. Best burger in Sydney, some of the best architecture around, Taittinger. Proof that Qantas can be world class. The only black mark is that the staff are from Sofitel, which must mean Qantas doesn’t have faith in its own, and that, is surely a bad message.

Ben Welsh is creative chairman, Asia, with M&C Saatchi


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