Targeted Advertising While You Fly

It has been four years since I first wrote this article for my personal blog and because not many people saw it and because not much has changed I thought I would update it a bit and share it on Innovation Excellence.

Flying to Hawaii four years ago, I was reminded of the phrase, “You may be talking but nobody is listening.” Hawaiian Airlines had seen fit to pollute the cabin with an endless stream of un-targeted advertising on the plane’s set of televisions (no fancy seatback units here).

Now, at least on American Airlines the “advertising” mostly masquerades as entertainment (CBS sitcoms or clips of Letterman and 60 minutes) to try and keep the shows’ viewer base loyal or to pull in new viewers, but it’s still advertising. American Airlines has traditional advertising as well, but less than what I saw on Hawaiian Airlines four years ago. Since then I’ve flown all around the world delivering innovation speeches and innovation training, using a variety of carriers (Korean Air, Air France, Delta, etc.) and even on seatback inflight entertainment units I have yet to see any targeted advertising, and I’ve flown on a lot of flights without seatback entertainment units (although more and more airlines are updating their fleets).

Broadcast networks have at least some justification for spamming people over the airwaves (it’s their only revenue source and they are only able to target based on dominant audience profiles). The availability of on-demand, seatback entertainment systems, leaves airlines with no excuse, and in fact advertisers would be willingly to pay more for targeted impressions.

For targeting purposes, the airlines know who purchased the ticket (likely their age (senior/adult/child), phone number, e-mail, address, zip code, how much they paid, the credit card they paid with, etc.). About frequent fliers they will also know how frequently they fly, their home airport, and maybe even whether they are traveling on business and for which company. So it would definitely be possible to design a system to target advertising in-flight. And properly designed you could roll it out across a whole range of airlines to help airlines increase their revenue and advertisers reach their target audiences. So why haven’t airlines implemented such a system yet?

At its simplest, airlines could define the programming schedule as a mixture of content blocks and advertising blocks (interstitial advertising) and target the advertising by seat, using passenger data. Passenger data could be loaded up at the beginning of each flight by a gate agent using a USB key, smartcard, or other portable data storage device. Every seat could potentially receive a different combination of commercials during the flight.

Airlines wishing to avoid interstitial advertising could design a more complex system to support advertising that would appear during the programming (as banners, or whatever). Whichever way the airlines went, they have the opportunity to create a system that would likely attract the highest rates for video advertising on the planet to help them pay for the increasingly expensive fuel to fly the plane.

So why haven’t they done it?

P.S. I also thought it was interesting that Hawaiian Airlines had chosen four years ago to go “cash-free” and only accept debit and credit cards (which many other airlines have since copied). I agree with offering credit and debit cards as an option, but I’m not sure I agree with abandoning cash. Why would you want to do anything to make it more difficult for people to give you their money?

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