Travel Ads Try the Heart Sell : Madison Ave. Uses Romance to Revitalize the Industry

It’s not just the “Love Boat” anymore. Here comes the Love Train--and other more sensual lures for travelers--courtesy of Madison Avenue.

The usually conservative Amtrak has just unwrapped an unexpectedly flashy print ad campaign that poses the rather racy question “Can a Train Holiday Improve Your Love Life?” A train trip, the ad vows, “will send your love life into orbit.”

At the same time, a new TV spot for Norwegian Cruise Line takes cruise advertising to unprecedented levels of sexual explicitness. One Norwegian ad was so sexual in nature that censors at NBC ordered the ad modified before airing it during Sunday’s Super Bowl game. “There is no law that says you can’t make love at four in the afternoon on a Tuesday,” the ad says.

Travel marketers are taking sensuality to sea--and even chugging it along train tracks. As the nation’s travel industry tries to recover from several consecutive years of disappointing growth, some of the country’s biggest travel companies are hopeful that ads promising a tryst or two will send consumers scurrying to their travel agents.


Despite their blatant sensuality, the new ads generally are not seen as sexist, because they tend to treat men and women on equal terms and as equally appealing.

“Everybody dreams about making it in one of those sleeper berths,” said Allison Cohen, president of the New York-based ad consulting firm PeopleTalk. “We’re talking about the kind of old-fashioned romance that used to be associated with travel.”

Travel marketers are getting wise to the secret desires of travelers--including those of many middle-aged couples. “There is a big market out there saying, ‘We need to get away and refresh our marriage,”’ said JeraldJellisona Los Angeles psychiatrist and consultant. “Most people hope their love lives will improve when they step away from everything.”


“Romance is an excellent marketing hook,” added Roberta Clarke, professor of marketing at Boston University. In a tough economy, travel companies that can’t claim to be the lowest-priced need some other very attractive promise, she said. “So why not romance?”

The number of trips taken by Americans was up less than 3% in 1993 compared to 1992, reports the Washington-based Travel Industry Assn. of America. That’s less than half the annual growth the industry was enjoying just a handful of years ago.

That is one reason why travel ads with sensual themes are likely to continue for some time, said Edward Book, president of the travel association. “They are trying to appeal to baby boomers who are moving into their late 40s and 50s,” he said.

That accurately describes the middle-aged couple in the Amtrak ad, seen hugging in the aisle of the train. Says the ad: “A train trip is like one long, fascinating date.”


Amtrak officials want to see ridership--especially among the middle-aged--pick up from its current slow pace. Ridership was up only slightly in 1993 compared to 1992.

“Train travel is a way to get away from it all,” said Joan Wheatley, director of advertising for Amtrak. “If people care for each other, a train trip can become a very romantic experience.”

How romantic?

Well, the New York ad agency that created the print ad first talked to a number of train passengers. “People tell us there’s something very sexy about trains,” said Damion O’Malley, executive vice president of DDB Needham. “It throws you together for hours on end. There’s an air of, well, anything can happen.”


But romantic travel may be most commonly associated with cruise ships.

That theme was picked up eight years ago by Princess Cruise Line, whose ship was used as a backdrop on the popular “Love Boat” TV series. Each weekly show usually featured a heated romance. Now the cruise line calls all of its ships “Love Boats.” Its TV spots star Gavin MacLeod, who played the ship’s captain on the show. The ads also use the show’s theme song.

“We research this every year,” said Julie Benson, director of public relations for Princess. “Consumers keep telling us that the ‘Love Boat’ has a lot of positive associations. So we stick with it.”

The current TV and print ads for Norwegian Cruises make the “Love Boat” look tame. One print ad features a photo of a woman’s bare back in a waterfall. “I will be naked more,” she says in the ad.


“We know that people go on vacations to renew relationships,” said Jeff Stutin, marketing director for Norwegian. “We’re just bringing that to the forefront.”

Perhaps a bit too much so--at least in the eyes of NBC censors. Prior to airing a Norwegian TV spot during Sunday’s Super Bowl, NBC told Norwegian’s ad agency to modify one part of the ad that shows a woman caressing a man’s chest.

“The ad is tame compared to some of the shots the network aired of the Dallas Cowgirls cheerleaders,” said Jeffrey Goodby, co-chairman of the San Francisco ad agency Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein.



Most airlines have been careful to stay away from sensuality in advertising. The one exception is Singapore Airlines, which 22 years ago introduced the notion of air travel as a service in which its attendants are at the customer’s beck and call. About 70% of the airline’s passengers are males.

Its ads feature real flight attendants who are referred to as “Singapore Girls.” And while Singapore Airlines also has several thousand male flight attendants, it has never so much as mentioned them in its ads. “We’ve spent millions on this successful campaign,” said Teng Aun Hwang, senior vice president at Singapore. “Why change it if we don’t need to?”

Although the ads have been criticized as sexist and exploitative, the Singapore Airlines executive insists there is no subliminal message of sexuality in the “Singapore Girl” ads. “These are our own employees,” he said. “We would never treat them in any way other than a wholesome and respectful manner.”

Briefly . . .


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