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Crazy New Airline Stunts

If your November travel plans include a flight out of Los Angeles, don’t be surprised to find yourself standing behind a bald, tattooed human billboard.

Starting in late October, Air New Zealand will be stationing recruits at LAX to advertise the transformative power of traveling to New Zealand, with slogans like “Need a Change?Head Down to New Zealand” temporarily inked on the backs of their shaved skulls.

According to Roger Poulton, Air New Zealand’s Vice President in the Americas, “People choosing long-haul travel must be convinced that they will have the experience of a lifetime. What better way to illustrate a dramatic transformation than to shave one’s head?”

The airline’s use of “cranial billboards” is certainly unique, but that creativity was born of necessity. The global airline industry has taken a nosedive, suffering some $5 billion in losses in just the past year, according to the International Air Transport Association—the second-worst year (after post-9/11 losses) since the advent of air travel. While many airlines have responded to the crisis by merging, filing for bankruptcy, or cutting costs, others have been more inventive—by engaging in headline-grabbing, over-the-top publicity stunts.

In mid-August, Irish carrier Ryanair kick-started the trend when it promised free plane tickets to the first 100 English high-school students who showed up at a bar in Liverpool. The only catch: to get the freebies, the students had to show proof that they’d failed their A-level exams (passing A-levels is mandatory for entrance to many top U.K. universities). Ryanair advertised the giveaway by encouraging teenagers to “Forget about going to Oxford or Cambridge” and take a trip abroad instead. Some European news outlets seemed amused by it; others (along with parents of college-aged students) not so much.

Soon after, JetBlue upped the ante with a more widely accessible—and widely publicized—offer. On September 7, the airline put 300 domestic round-trip tickets up for auction on eBay, most with starting bids of just five or ten cents. Even though when the auctions closed a few days later, a flood of bidders had driven the prices way up, JetBlue spokesperson Alison Eshelman said the venture was a success. JetBlue got to introduce the airline to a new potential customer base—eBay’s—and those who nabbed tickets saved about 40 percent off regular fares.

It was no surprise when Richard Branson got into the game. The chairman of the Virgin Group—which operates the carriers Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America—had a reputation for courting media attention long before the air industry hit its current bad patch. Earlier this year, he created buzz by flying an experimental “biofueled” jet with a mixture of coconut and babassu oils, then announced he would launch the world’s first commercial space-flight service, Virgin Galactic. In early September, though, Branson made headlines with a more populist undertaking: he co-branded planes on Virgin America’s new New York–to–Las Vegas route with the popular HBO series Entourage.

To launch the new route (and the new season of the TV show), Virgin had a fleet of Airbus jets wrapped in Entourage signage, and also introduced a month-long “Entourage Class” package for first-class passengers, with V.I.P extras like on-board cashmere blankets and Godiva chocolates. During a kickoff party at JFK airport, Branson was photographed having a champagne-spray fight with stars from the TV series.

But Air New Zealand’s use of “cranial billboards” marks the first effort by an airline to actually brand humans. The campaign was first launched in New Zealand in mid-September, when the airline announced casting calls for 70 bald (or willing-to-be-shaved) participants; hundreds of aspiring recruits showed up; others sent e-mails from as far away as Florida.

The campaign’s success on native soil, said Air New Zealand Marketing Manager Steve Bayliss, is what prompted the airline to try bringing it overseas, starting in the U.S.

“The cheeky sense of humor in the campaign has sparked people’s imagination,” Bayliss said. Even when not standing in airport lines, the human billboards all reported “making new friends and being stopped on the streets to talk about the campaign,” he said. “Could be a spin-off here for a dating campaign.”

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