Feature: Flight Attendants Can Now Wear Pants, but the Question Remains, Does Sex Sell Anyway?

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BUSAN, South Korea – With the final coffin nail being hammered into Asiana Airlines’ dress code this week and the last of Korea’s flight attendants finally given the option to wear trousers, persistent questions once again arise: Does the way your flight attendant looks or dresses have any impact on your travel preference?

In other words, does sex sell?

Most asking the question are doing just that, asking. As yet, there is no conclusive evidence showing that how much skin your flight attendant flashes or how much six-pack a male model displays actually affects your purchase of the product they are shilling. But that doesn’t mean the airline industry, and nearly every other industry, will not continue to work something sexual into their product display under the myth that sex actually does increase sales.

How about Thailand’s budget carrier Nok Air? They recently caught heat for their ad campaign, and subsequent calendar, featuring flight attendants in bikinis —with the blithely expressed intent of raising ticket sales.

To the joy of Nok Air management (I am guessing primarily men), the campaign received over 200,000 “Likes” on Facebook, but does that prove anything other than people literally liked what they saw and ignores the fact that if Thai Airways offers a ticket for less money, people will choose that over a great pair of legs?

So why continue the age old ploy?

As early as the 1920’s advertisers have perpetuated the myth that sex sells, even on items as innocuous as tire stem valve caps. While there might be some phallic connection to be made by armchair psychologists or amateur comedians over tire stems, there is little to back up the belief that sexually suggestive imagery influences how people will cap pressure coming from their stem.

According to Dr. Renee Garfinkle, writing in Psychology Today, the “sexiniess” of an ad might very well attract the passing eye, but interestingly, the sexier the display is, the less likely the viewer will remember it.

Garfinkle writes:

“In fact, what a visual hint of sex will accomplish, a visual barrage of sex can destroy. Not long ago, researchers at Iowa State University found that viewers of programs with sexually explicit or violent content were less likely to remember commercials immediately after watching and even 24 hours later.”

The Iowa study found that the majority of people aged 18-54 who saw ads while watching sexual or violent TV content were less likely to remember the advertised products than those who saw ads while watching “neutral” programming.

Another study by the University of Southern California, called Can Victoria’s Secret change the future?, finds that sexual imagery related to a product, while garnering a person’s immediate attention and literally increasing people’s “views,” in the end, just leaves them feeling frustrated.

So, for now, the jury is still out as to the effectiveness of sex in pushing products. But it’s nice that the ladies working at Asiana can choose what they want to wear. And they should have that right—especially considering management’s obvious intent to increase ticket sales by exploiting the employee’s body.

To the industry’s credit, I suppose, they at least offer role-playing seminars on how flight attendants can best reject propositions while in flight. But isn’t that really a case of dressing up the buffet table to near-perfection and then training the staff how to tackle you before you can fill your plate? The contradictions abound on the outbound and the inbound.

At any rate, the next time you are booking a ticket you can judge for yourself: are you going pass on Asiana because there will be fewer skirts? Or is it really all about the peanuts?

This week, Korea-based Asiana Airlines finally gave in to union and human right group’s demands and will allow flight attendants the option to wear trousers rather than skirts. Last month, Thailand’s Nok Air started a new campaign with flight attendants in bikinis. The question remains, does any of it influence your purchase?

Case Study: An Airline Ad

Here is an interesting example as to the mindset of advertising agencies and the company’s that pay them. Watch the ad and notice, there are practically no men in it —just an ongoing stream of sexy women in different countries that Korean Air flies to and, that you can, through the purchase of a ticket, possibly meet.

Perhaps more telling is the imagery of the men in the ad.

Guy One: A janitor cleaning what appears to be an empty high-rise office. Outside the window, a giant woman paints red lipstick on her lips. He’s interested. As the shot moves outdoors to the giant woman, we see that she is using the building as a mirror. Sorry guy, she doesn’t see you anyway and she’s off to date a non-janitor. And why are you cleaning an already immaculate empty office?

Guy Two: Straddling a bridge in Seoul, he walks toward another hot girl trying to maintain his balance so he can “cross that bridge,” while Seoul Tower stand fully erect piercing the sky. And the left hand side of the bridge doesn’t know what the right hand side of the bridge is doing.

Guy Three: Shall we have dinner over my phallic symbol? Why not? This whole date is on the fly anyway, and I didn’t have to pay for your seat.

Side note: As is often the case in Korean ads, none of the women enticing you is actually Asian. Even in the Asian countries being featured. Some of the flight attendants are Asian, yes, but none of the women being held up as sex symbols are. That’s just weird.


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