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Pepsi, United, PR problems and common sense

By Jane Hagl & Lauren AguirreApril 12, 2017

United Airlines planes sit on the tarmac at San Francisco In
United Airlines planes sit on the tarmac at San Francisco In Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

L: In the past few weeks, there have been three major scandals involving big American companies. One is a commercial Pepsi produced that faced quite a bit of backlash. Another was United’s mishandling of a passenger that likely resulted in injuries and emotional distress. And the third also involves United in preventing passengers from boarding a flight because they were wearing leggings.

J: On a positive note, the amount of satire these events fueled was quite impressive. On a serious note, even if the incidents were vastly different, it highlights both a policy and PR incompetence. Someone in the room should have said something about the insensitivity of the ad. United’s policies need to be reviewed. Most airlines just up offers until someone bites. And the PR handling was a mess.

L: I feel like some common sense should have been applied in pretty much all of these cases. However, the scandals with United are different from Pepsi’s commercial in that United probably didn’t intend any of their actions to become hugely public. However, Pepsi dumped a lot of time and resources into that ad that backfired spectacularly. Both companies caused their own problems, but Pepsi definitely completely intended to publicize their ideas.

J: I’ve wondered if Pepsi did that on purpose. Soda is a shrinking product category and Coke dominates it anyway. Pepsi got a lot of free press for the first time in a long time. Companies will release a controversial ad and pull it because it generates more press attention than the ad alone. It happens all the time during Super Bowl season. United just was a slew of bad planning. It brings attention to how airlines handle business.

L: That’s an interesting point on whether Pepsi purposely made the ad offensive. But then again, unless you’re familiar with protesting or major movements, on its face, there’s really nothing glaringly obviously bad with the ad. It’s a more nuanced discussion, I think. And in my reading behind what happened with United, I found that many airlines purposely overbook flights banking on the fact that some people won’t show up. So when most everyone does, they end up having to turn away paying customers. That seems crazy to me. That’s the equivalent of a popular band overselling their concert tickets. That kind of thing is unheard of.

J: Normally, if you’re on standby, you’re told before you board the plane. It seems like United just simply forgot they had four employees that needed a flight. And the fine print on your ticket says the airline can remove you from a flight at any time. Whenever David Duo didn’t comply with the request, he became “uncooperative” which meant he was “disruptive,” which gave the crew a reason to remove him from the flight. What I don’t get is the amount of force they used and the fact they couldn’t come up with a decent apology the first time around. It took them awhile to respond.

L: I agree that that was an excessive use of force. And it seems this situation was a result of being disorganized on their part. Asking four paying customers to leave a flight for their employees is just bad form. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people decide not to fly United after this. There’s a reason smaller, non-legacy airlines like Virgin are so popular. They don’t have much of these outdated policies. Overbooking is the industry standard, but they typically have a much more relaxed atmosphere and are much more friendly with customers. And it was also bad form to have almost an entire day between when the video went viral and making a formal apology. It seems like they never intended to apologize at all. Additionally, Duo is now suing for compensation.

J: The CEO’s first statement was not a smart move. He should have released his second apology first and it would have saved his company some of that $1 billion they’ve already lost. The overbooking illustrates an industry that hasn’t been checked and balanced. Customers tend to lose because the ratio that determines overselling a flight is just based on estimates so it’s rarely accurate. Even if a customer misses a flight or cancels a flight, the airline gets to keep that money and then they make money from the bumped customer. So airlines win either way.

L: Airlines get away with it because it is incredibly expensive to fly. If you really need the flight, you’re probably not going to throw a fit if you get rebooked on a flight leaving shortly after. Also, unless you’re flying a lot for business, flying is a rare occasion. If you are in business class, you won’t be bumped anyway.

J: Sometimes those flights are much later. The Daos’ next available flight would have been Monday afternoon and he is a cardiologist with patients to see Monday morning. United should have understood that is a higher priority. But it goes back to being a paying customer. What happened to the customer is first? Airlines already manipulate prices and people have places to go. It’s not that difficult to count how many seats there are on a plane and then sell those tickets. Taking a loss of a ticket is much cheaper than United’s current situation. Both the leggings incident and the David Duo situation show a lack of valuing their customers.

L: It does seem that United says “no” a lot to their customers, which is just bad for a customer-facing company. The frustrating part is if these situations were handled with more common sense and care, neither would have made headlines.

J: Common sense isn’t all that common.