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

Virgin America isn't the only airline with a sense of humor.

March 29, 2013— -- 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 clichés 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."

OK, fine but where're the free bags? They aren't even mentioned.

Is Southwest changing? Of course. Businesses change or die in any industry. Southwest is one of the big boys now or, as its new ad proclaims, "America's largest domestic airline." In terms of passenger traffic, it is indeed. But is it also, as Time magazine suggests, "not really about cheap flights anymore?"

Southwest's hometown watchdog, the Dallas Morning News, recently quoted one of the airline's executives as saying changes are coming. "I'm not saying it's necessarily going to be a change fee. But we'll certainly start moving in the directions to tighten some of the restrictions on our lowest-priced fares sometime in 2013."

Yes, Southwest is growing up.

Does the image succeed? Too soon to say about the latest image, but we can state Southwest has long been a profitable enterprise and has extremely loyal customers. It also has another ace up its sleeve: extremely responsive customer service, which is in short supply these days. My bet is the airline will be just fine.

The Virgin America Image: Hipster Humor

Why just fly when you can party in the sky? That's the feeling you get with all the Virgin brands and its U.S. cousin is no exception.

Besides the aforementioned rabid badger, Virgin America message boards have variously proclaimed, "You got to fight … for your flight … to depaaaaaarty!" as well as, "BIG HUGE GRANDE delay! Holding due to weather on the east coast!! Lions, and tigers and thunder, OH My!"

Then there was the sign greeting arriving Las Vegas passengers: "Let's get our story straight: We're all in Cincinnati, right?"

Funny and smart.

Some of its customers share this warped sense of humor, including the guy who wrote to Virgin founder Richard Branson a few years back, sorrowfully recounting a lousy meal he'd had on a Virgin flight. He told Branson that peeling back the foil on his entree was like opening a box at Christmas only to find a horrible ... well, let him tell you: "It's your hamster Richard. It's your hamster in the box and it's not breathing."

Branson's characteristic response was to offer the guy a job as a Virgin food consultant.

Does the image succeed? To an extent. Virgin America has a lot of, yes, rabid fans, and while its airfare sales can be terrific, it doesn't always have the lowest prices, which can be a problem for bottom line-obsessed shoppers.

The nearly 6-year-old carrier reportedly has yet to post a profitable year but everyone who flies Virgin America tells me they love it, and its customer service, which could make a difference in the coming years, especially if the economy keeps improving.

But what the majority of shoppers seem to be saying right now is just show us the cheapest possible price. Back in the days before de-regulation -- before comparison shopping sites -- price info wasn't so readily available and there wasn't much difference anyway, hence the need for "breakout" imagery.

But do we still need "image" today? The jury is out.

Final note: Spirit is currently a contender in the annual "Worst Company in America" contest -- a lampoon of the NCAA basketball tournament --- and as of this writing, is advancing nicely.

I doubt Spirit cares much because, in the end, money talks. And Spirit's profits are shrieking.

The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his and not those of ABC News.