LONDON, England, Feb. 9, 2008— -- What do new French first lady Carla Bruni, the Pope, a sexy schoolgirl and Belgium have in common?
They all are featured in a series of advertisements for the low-cost Irish airline Ryanair that has brought howls of outrage.
Known as the "bad boy" of European airlines, Ryanair repeatedly entertains and enrages Europe with its advertising campaigns.
"Hottest Back-to-School Fares!" screamed one recent ad, featuring a scantily clad model posing in a school uniform and suggestively twirling her hair. The ad earned the budget airline yet another wrap on the knuckles from the Advertising Standards Authority, a British advertising watchdog. The ASA deemed the ad offensive and ordered it pulled. As the agency has no enforcement powers, however, Ryanair refused to halt the ad.
"An anti-brand, if you will, is clearly successful for Ryanair," explains Robert Jones of Wolff Olins, a brand consultant firm. Avmark aviation analyst Deepak Agarwal agrees the campaign is a good strategy. "Any publicity is good publicity, be it good or bad," Agarwal tells ABC News.
And the publicity is even better if it's free.
The advertising authority's ruling last week came shortly after French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his then-girlfriend, Carla Bruni, announced they were taking legal action against the airline for using a photo of them without permission.
The ad showed the smiling couple with a comic book bubble over Bruni's head saying, "With Ryanair, all my family can come to the wedding."
As they waited for the French courts to rule on the complaint, Sarkozy and Bruni actually did get married. And they began their new life together with $88,974 in damages awarded them from Ryanair.
"The fines Ryanair pays out are nothing compared to what they would have to pay an ad agency," explains aviation analyst Dan Solon. "It's basically free advertising,"
Ryanair marked its entrance into the Belgian market back in 2001 with an off-color shot at the national airline, Sabena. Over a picture of a famous Belgium statue called Manneken Pis — a child urinating — was the caption, "Pissed off with Sabena's high fares?"
When the Commercial Courts of Brussels ordered Ryanair to withdraw its "denigrating and misleading" ads and issue a written apology to Sabena, the Irish airline did as instructed. The apology read "We're Sooooo Sorry Sabena!" and went on to list seven more one-way price comparisons. Sabena was eventually forced to trim prices by 50 percent on routes that competed with Ryanair.
As a self-proclaimed champion of air passengers, Ryanair has also put the squeeze on government officials. Last year, the airline showed a photo of then-British Chancellor Gordon Brown, now the country's prime minister, shaking hands with the Pope. The ad was in response to Brown's decision to double air passenger taxes in the United Kingdom. "Even I can't absolve you of that sin," reads the comic bubble over Pope Benedict XIV's head.
Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary may need his sense of humor, as rising fuel costs threaten to cut the airline's profits in half this year. The company's shares tumbled 11 percent on Monday. And the budget airline reported a net profit drop of 27 percent to $52 million during the last quarter of 2007. It was the company's first quarterly decline in more than a year.
But aviation analyst Dan Solon told ABC News not to underestimate Ryanair and its staying power: "There is zero chance they will go out of business." He added, "Clearly, they figure to be among the last guys standing." Analyst Deepak Agarwal agrees and believes part of the airline's future strategy is to expand.
With expansion — and Italy's garbage strike — in mind, Ryanair is promoting its flights in Italy as a way of escaping piles of garbage that are choking the city of Naples.
The airline has seized on the idea of public outrage at the waste crisis and the fact that local residents must still pay a refuse tax even when their streets are filled with rotting garbage. So Ryanair's newest promotion is offering 250,000 free flights where the customer only pays airport taxes. The advert reads: "Pay the taxes! Not for waste (disposal) but to escape."
Travelers may find it funny, but officials in Naples are not amused.