Airline offers free snacks, but with a side of advertising

By Kaivan Mangouri
Globe Correspondent / August 30, 2011

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Maybe there is such a thing as a free lunch, if you include a little advertising.

For a few weeks this summer on select US Airways Shuttle flights from Logan International Airport, passengers got a snack box without charge - thanks to a sponsor who paid to print a commercial message on the box.

The ads were the brainchild of Ryan D. Matway, who founded Air Advertainment LLC, based in West Palm Beach, Fla., to commercialize the concept.

So far, the agency has conducted one snack-box advertising campaign at a time; in July, it launched a promotion for the New York-based online luxury retailer Gilt Groupe,, a members-only shopping service.

Thanks to Gilt’s ads on the boxes, passengers on the US Airways shuttle flights did not have to pay the usual $4 to $5 price. The airline distributed 100,000 free snack boxes in three weeks, it said.

“Back in late 2008 is when I got this crazy idea,’’ Matway said. “Why not bring the snack back on board for free, and give the advertisers this captive audience?’’

The shuttle, which covers the business-heavy route between Boston, New York, and Washington, was chosen for its passenger list, which includes many of the high-income professionals who are Gilt’s target customers.

Gilt’s senior director of marketing, Ayesha Ahmad, said the company commissioned a photo shoot for the snack box campaign, depicting products such as shoes and shirts.

Air Advertainment, with a contract that gave it exclusive rights to provide snack boxes on US Airways Shuttle flights, made its pitch to Gilt. The ads offer a Gilt membership and a discount deal. Air Advertainment tracks the customer response and provides the information to Gilt, which can determine how much bang it’s getting for its advertising buck.

Gilt, which had previously advertised only online, would not reveal the cost or the response to the campaign, but said the results were positive.

“We’ve seen a promising return,’’ Ahmad said, adding that the company got some repeat business from customers who responded to the airline campaign.

Matway has worked in marketing and sales throughout his career, but he considers his current outfit the most innovative. Air Advertainment has six employees and plans to roll out another campaign for an unnamed sponsor.

Promotional giveaways on airline flights can take different forms.

Google Chrome offered passengers on several airlines free Wi-Fi during the most recent holiday season, but Air Advertainment’s free snack box is unique, said Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks, an airline consulting firm that specializes in ancillary revenue. It targets a predictable and sought-after demographic, he said: business travelers who can afford a luxury shopping service but are not necessarily sitting in first class, where meals are included and are usually more upscale.

US Airways has a reputation for putting advertisements in its cabin, Sorensen said, noting that the company makes $20 million a year from ads on napkins, tray tables, and air-sickness bags by companies such as Verizon Wireless, Sony Corp., and General Motors Co.

“US Airways is probably the most aggressive and effective airline in the US in this regard,’’ he said.

The Air Advertainment concept relies on classic marketing techniques, said Christopher Cakebread, Boston University advertising professor.

“It’s direct response . . . it’s just dressed up with a new platform,’’ Cakebread said. “I think logically you could make a strong argument for the environment and the target [Gilt is] trying to reach.’’

But Cakebread wondered whether advertising to a captive audience might have unintended effects, especially at a time when the air travel experience is not well regarded.

“Get yourself on an airline when they screw up,’’ he said. “Is this [advertising] going to make them feel any better?’’

Although in-flight sponsorship opportunities exist in announcements, such as the safety primer before the flight, or space on the tray table, advertisers should take care not to offend passengers who are confined to their chairs, said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Forrester Research Inc.

“I think that there are a lot of opportunities, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should,’’ he said - because the plane could end up packed with advertisements and looking like a subway car.

Kaivan Mangouri can be reached at