Why flying “sells” – anything from cars to politicians

Mercedes-Benz "flying" ad for the SLS AMG supercar

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By Paul Jansen
From the Left Seat

It is becoming so commonplace that it is a cliché: link a product or a person to aviation to make it more desirable or attention-grabbing. Advertising copywriters, reporters and authors all use the gimmick. Just flip through your newspaper or trawl the Internet.

Take the latest print ads for the new supercar, Mercedes-Benz’s SLS AMG, which claims:

Mercedes-Benz supercar SLS AMG "flying" adWell, it can’t.

Ad for Chevy Orlando uses aviation language

A Chevrolet ad in The Sunday Times declares:

“… up front the driver and his co-pilot are treated to a Corvette-inspired dual cockpit dashboard…”

Co-pilot? I know bus companies now call their bus drivers “captains” but when did front seat passengers in cars receive their Private Pilot’s Licence?

You have probably seen many more examples. Ad men are not the only men mad about injecting flying into their work. Newspapermen are equally adept at it.

The Straits Times announced on March 18, 2011:

Time for PAP’s women to fly solo?

They can’t either. They will need to obtain a student pilot’s licence and training before lifting off sans instructor, in aviation terms: Go solo.

“Going solo” is a defined momentous event in the life of a would-be pilot. It means he or she has the right balance of training, skills and courage to go it alone in the unforgiving air.

The sub-editor penning that headline knows this but was reaching for the aviation milestone as a metaphor. The question is: Why?

My guess is that a flying machine today represents the apex of technology. And those with the power to control it are viewed as belonging to a priesthood of sorts, whose members pass complicated tests, memorise arcane rites, and demonstrate considerable fortitude before being allowed to become one of the elite. While this may feed the flying fraternity’s collective ego, it is untrue.

Nonetheless, there appears to be a strong belief in the advertising community that by linking a product with aviation and aviators, shoppers will think it more high-tech, difficult to own, and those who have one must belong to a special breed. There must be some underpinning for this faith as the practice continues unabated.

This is despite the fact that there are many pilots of different skills and character today and that there are many flying vehicles, throughout history, which have been less than unsuccessful.

Take your pick. For instance, Ancient Greeks tell of an Athenian master craftsman Daedalus, who built flying machines of feathers and wax for himself and his son, Icarus, so that they could escape from exile in Crete. The wax worked until Icarus ignored his father’s pre-flight briefing and soared too near the sun. It melted.

He died, but his attempt at flight was immortalised in mythology.

Icarus is remembered for attempting flight

Icarus is remembered for attempting flight even though unsuccessfully as this painting by Herbert James Draper shows.

Fortunately, others did better. Brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright built the first successful airplane and made the first powered, controlled and sustained heavier-than-air flight on December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

They lived and were immortalised in aviation history.

While the flying community since then has grown, pilots remain a rarity as a proportion of the world population. There are several individuals and organisations, big like the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and small like the Johor Flying Club, trying to change this. However, though many more people could easily win their “wings”, the lack of knowledge of the actual physical and educational requirements, fear of the risks involved in defying gravity and concern over the cost of training, combine to keep the pilot population small.

Ironically, this results in the classic chicken-and-egg situation where the awe non-pilots have of pilots leads to fewer people taking that one step towards getting their own licence to fly. To break this pattern, more fliers need to volunteer their time to show their friends and others that controlling a plane is not easy but learning to do it is within their reach. And that a new world awaits them when they get their PPL, or at least experience the joy of recreational flight.

Then, ad men and sub-editors will not be able to persuade us to settle for substitutes.

In fact, there is no substitute for the real thing.  Famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart noted: ”You haven’t seen a tree until you’ve seen its shadow from the sky.”

Italian genius Leonardo da Vinci, who drew plans for flying machines in the 15th Century, including for a hang glider and what resembled a helicopter, is believed to have said: “Once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”

Boosting the pilot population is also an act of self-preservation for the flying community. Some spectacular disasters have led many to question the need for man to be in the cockpit, whether in a plane or a spaceship. And the continued efforts by non-flying media professionals to psyche the public into believing that there is little difference between a car and a plane, a politician and a pilot, is helping that camp.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong did more than place mankind's first step on the moon: he summarised millenia of yearning when he said: "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." - NASA picture

Astronaut Neil Armstrong did more than place mankind's first step on the moon: he summarised millenia of yearning when he said: "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." - NASA picture

But a microprocessor or a missile, a robot or a rocket, still cannot speak to us as another man can, quickening our collective pulse with an apt phrase or a poignant poem.

A machine to Mars will not be able to speak to our hearts as  U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong did when stepping on the moon with: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

And, by the way, that’s the kind of writing that moves me. Putting “wings” on a red-hot Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG figuratively, or even literally, won’t.

Would I like to own a red-hot Mercedes supercar? Yes! It is a beautiful machine. But if it meant choosing one or the other, I would not trade my 20-year-old Piper Warrior II or any other plane I acquire in the future for it. No matter what the ad copy says.

Copyright: Paul Jansen 2011. All rights reserved.

NEXT: Why good pilots make great CEOs

Paul Jansen is a media professional with extensive experience in journalism with The Straits Times and Singapore Press Holdings. He is the founding editor of The Straits Times Interactive, now, conceptualised and led the multiple award-winning search and directory engine, and played a role in the start-up of the telco M1 and other companies. He has left the editorial and marketing trenches and is currently advising firms on dealing with the press on a daily basis and especially in a crises. He is also co-founder and executive chairman of aSpecial Media Pte Ltd, an award-winning company which specialises in collecting and analysing behavioural data for public and private institutions, policy-makers and marketers. But mostly he flies.

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