Snarky, Hip and Inspirational: The Real Story Behind Three Airline Brands

PHOTO: Guests board the plane for the Launch of Virgin Americas first flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia at LAX, April 4, 2012, in Los Angeles.

The message on a gate-information board at San Francisco International explained how the airline was going to speed things up after a recent flight delay:

"Once the aircraft parks at the gate a rabid badger will be released at the rear of the aircraft to encourage people to exit forward quickly."

If you guessed Virgin America for the airline, you win the rabid badger. Virgin's hipster humor and off-the-wall sense of fun fits the carrier's witty yet welcoming style to a T.

It's not the only airline with a sense of humor, though. Quirky, even wacky identities are the hallmark of several carriers that pay good money for this branding. Let's look at three airline images then answer this question: When it comes to choosing whom to fly with, do passengers really give a [rabid badger] about image?

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The Spirit Image: Snarky (and sometimes, NSFW)

You have to wonder whether JetBlue's catchphrase, "we'll throw in a little thing called humanity" isn't a not-so-veiled dig at that meanie, Spirit. Florida-based discounter Spirit revels in an endless stream of nasty or snarky website ads targeting politicians (the former governor of Illinois' conviction was marked by screaming headlines announcing a "Slammer Sale!"); athletes (an allegedly enhanced Yankee was tweaked in the "Improve Your Travel Performance" sale); and don't forget that Secret Service prostitution scandal ("More Bang for Your Buck").

As for women, Spirit once advertised a sale called "We're proud of our Double-Ds" as in, deep discounts. Right.

These airline ads look every bit as cheap as they sound but that's the whole point. Spirit fares are cheap and they want to hammer that home.

Does the image succeed: Absolutely. Spirit is a scrappy fighter targeting those who want the cheapest airfare possible, and it works. As a certain TV money man noted during a recent on-air, love-fest with Spirit's CEO, the airline is profitable. "You are the Dollar General!" Jim Cramer shouted to Spirit's Ben Baldanza, who smiled approvingly.

Of course, you get what you pay for. Spirit fees can be high (up to $100 for a carry-on bag) while what little customer service exists is sometimes tone-deaf (Spirit once denied a ticket refund to a dying man who wouldn't live to take his trip). Do people love Spirit? Yes. Is Spirit for everyone? No.

The Southwest Image: Wacky Everyman to Soaring Inspiration

I laughed out loud at Southwest's TV ads like the one starring big-bellied baggage guys sporting a single letter per stomach spelling out the airline's signature perk, "free bags." But there's not a laugh in sight in Southwest's latest.

Instead, you get the soaring music and inspirational clich├ęs that would be right at home in commercials for American or Delta: "The American dream just doesn't happen. It's something you have to work for."

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