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South Florida-based Spirit Airlines is known for being cheap. They boast ultra-low fares, then charge for things like carry-on luggage or for printing your boarding pass at the airport. That sense of thrift carries over to the company's advertising. Even compared with other low-cost airlines, Spirit spends almost nothing on ads, and yet the company's on-the-cheap campaigns often get lots of attention. From WLRN in Miami, reporter Kenny Malone visited the company's headquarters for some dirty little secrets of Spirit marketing.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: Spirit Airline's corporate conference room is about what you'd expect: a drop ceiling, people in buttoned-down shirts sitting around a dark-wood table, listening to a jargony presentation.

BOBBY SCHROETER: So we've been successful at promoting our ultra-low fares in a way that keeps costs down.

MALONE: Bobby Schroeter is presenting a PowerPoint of successful Spirit campaigns. One of the ads shows a series of islands and four bright yellow letters.

SCHROETER: We have our very famous M.I.L.F. ad, Many Islands Low Fares.

(LAUGHTER)

MALONE: Not coincidentally, M.I.L.F. is also a crass reference to good-looking mothers.

SCHROETER: And it's hotter and cheaper than ever.

(LAUGHTER)

MALONE: Not the kind of thing you're used to hearing from a publicly traded company. But this ad in particular is a good way to look at how Spirit shock marketing works.

The process starts with customers like Yessica Diaz and her boyfriend, Edwin Irizarry. Today, they're flying Spirit out of Fort Lauderdale International Airport.

YESSICA DIAZ: Yeah, because it's cheap.

MALONE: As a result, Diaz is now one of 6 million people on Spirit's email list. Instead of buying TV commercials, ads like M.I.L.F. get email blasted out and, unsurprisingly, get reactions.

EDWIN IRIZARRY: It's kind of like funny and insulting, I guess.

DIAZ: That's pretty bad.

MALONE: Entertained or aghast, people like Diaz might forward or tweet or blog the ad. Enough of that, and the big leagues take note.

BILL O'REILLY: A gross expression taken from the movie "American Pie" was adopted by Spirit Airlines.

MALONE: And sometimes shows like FOX News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" try to take Spirit reps to task.

O'REILLY: Joining us from Miami to explain, Ben Baldanza, the president of Spirit Airlines.

MALONE: But Ben Baldanza is very good at turning a scolding into a value proposition.

BEN BALDANZA: Our consumer feedback has been positive, and the only thing we think of obscene is the fares that most of our competitors charge.

MALONE: Just like that, a free advertisement is born, and Spirit can do topical material too. When the BP oil spill happened, the Spirit ad made NBC News.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The ads feature the slogan: Check out the oil on our beaches. Only it refers to suntan oil on women.

MALONE: The first Anthony Weiner scandal? Spirit got time on a syndicated pop culture show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There was the Weiner Sale, with fares too hard to resist.

MALONE: Spirit says they've churned out ad campaigns within three hours of a news event, which helps explain the graphics' distinctively campy look.

ARMANDO LOPEZ: It borders on the unprofessional.

MALONE: Armando Lopez runs Navigant Marketing and has helped brand airlines in the past.

LOPEZ: It looks like something that an office clerk did in PowerPoint on their free time. And no offense to the office clerk in saying that.

MALONE: Stuart Klaskin is CEO at Jetstream Aviation Capital, an airline consulting firm in Miami. He says that cheap look of Spirit ads is actually very important.

STUART KLASKIN: If you're selling we're inexpensive, then anything you do in your branding that makes you look like you're spending a lot of money, the consumer ultimately translates that into, hey, I am paying for that.

MALONE: There is, of course, also the issue of Spirit's quasi-offensive content. The Better Business Bureau has plenty of complaints about Spirit Airlines, but none of them about the subject matter of their ads. That being said, in 2008, the head of the Association of Flight Attendants formally complained to Spirit about their M.I.L.F. ad. Spirit claims the goal isn't to offend, just to get attention.

BARRY BIFFLE: We're a family company, and we look at all these things with the Scooby-Doo test.

MALONE: As Spirit's chief marketing officer, Barry Biffle turned to shock marketing back when no one knew the company. And that Scooby-Doo test, he means kid-friendly, like how children could enjoy Scooby-Doo cartoons.

BIFFLE: But they didn't get the fact that, you know, Shaggy was the only one who could actually hear the dog. They were driving around in a good-times van. They always had the munchies.

MALONE: And so maybe Spirit's shock marketing is the not-so-subtle marijuana joke of the airline industry. It apparently hasn't hurt the bottom line. Last year, The Wall Street Journal said Spirit was, pound for pound, the most profitable airline in the U.S. And Barry Biffle, the guy who's ultimately responsible for all those ads, he got a job this summer running his own low-cost airline, VivaColombia. For NPR News, I'm Kenny Malone in Miami.

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