Biman, Cobain, and the leaving of a jet plane 01/02/14

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 1 February 2014

Biman Bangladesh Airlines deserves credit for its marketing nous in adding three scenic tours for plane enthusiasts, after the world’s last passenger flight of a DC-10 on the Dhaka-Kuwait-Birmingham route next month. It is a fitting way to say goodbye to the DC-10, as Biman phases in a more modern fleet.

One suspects though, that by confining ticket sales for the farewell trips to aisle and window seats only, Biman’s marketing team has missed a trick. Plane spotters don’t strike me as the type to want to rush off a plane before it gets to the end of a runway. The old McDonnell Douglas workhorse may not be Concorde, but wouldn’t they still be happier to linger on a full aircraft, rather than peer out the window?

Either way, the heritage flights at least offer a unique chance to experience a piece of aviation history. They provide more real value than the ticket stubs which obsessive music fans seem to want to collect.

I say “seem” because, as a new memoir by a London concert promoter explains, such markets can easily be manipulated. Simon Parkes, the former owner of the Brixton Academy, a cinema hall turned concert venue, has written candidly about a radio interview he gave in 1994 on the death of Kurt Cobain. He had been phoned by the station because his venue was due to host a series of sold out concerts later that year by the late singer’s ill fated band, Nirvana.

While the interview naturally focused on the tragedy of Cobain’s suicide, a spur of the moment impulse propelled Parkes into claiming that “people from America and Japan are offering us over £100 for Nirvana tickets, as a piece of history.”

At the time, this was not the case, but the interview rapidly took on a life of its own, and huge demand sprang up to buy the cancelled concert tickets. Far from being hurt by fans wanting refunds for tickets, the venue ended up having to buy back fewer than a fifth of the £13.50 tickets, which it was immediately able to sell on for £100. In the end, Parkes noted: “We ended up turning a profit on four gigs that never happened.”

A valuable lesson in supply and demand no doubt, but this month’s revelation of the truth behind the tale still raised eyebrows about opportunistic marketing. Given the popularity of old band reunions with the public however, not to mention the prevalence of never-ending farewell tours in the music industry, the demand for those tickets was almost certainly inevitable.

The market for high end art is another area where hype and perceived critical merit can do as much to raise demand and prices as the intrinsic value, quality, or scarcity of the work/product itself. This had curious consequences recently when Dasha Zhukova, the partner of Roman Abramovich, was photographed sitting on a racially provocative artwork, the image of which went viral on Martin Luther King’s birthday.

The work consists of a chair whose back legs are made up of an undressed black woman and not surprisingly, sparked accusations of racism and sexism. While this may conceivably work as a conceptual commentary on gender, race, and power (and images of the rich and powerful sitting, or worse,  on the poor, are an old idea in art and satire), the act of sitting on the “racist chair” understandably raised public ire, regardless of the intentions of the artist and patron.

What is telling about this incident is that the power of art criticism was highlighted by Zhukova’s statement shortly afterwards that: “This photograph, which has been published completely out of context, is of an art work intended specifically as a commentary on gender and racial politics. I utterly abhor racism, and would like to apologise to anyone who has been offended by this image.”

Her reference to the critical approval which the work received is a powerful reminder of how commentators and kudos can influence demand and drive up prices. While it is easy to look askance at the prices paid for some artworks by the wealthy, perception and psychology play just as big a part in influencing demand by everyday consumers. Hence, the power of advertising and marketing to sometimes create demand for products which people did not know they wanted, is a perennial topic for debate.

As a worldwide industry with revenues north of $550bn, advertising’s influence on peoples’ lives is certainly immense enough for there always to be a need to debate its ethics and impact. It is clearly reasonable to be wary of misleading or unethical marketing which undermine the functioning of a free and fair marketplace.

But while few would argue against the need for some regulation of advertising to reflect societal consensus on issues such as say, limiting cigarette marketing, its role in encouraging consumption or influencing culture is far more complex.

It is as equally easy to assert that there would be less environmentally harmful consumption in the world if there was less advertising, as it is to argue that it is absolutely essential for capitalism and culture to flourish. After all, the industry pays for most of the world’s media and television, including lest we forget, free at point of use email and internet services.

Perhaps the latter is not a real problem though, because however popular paid for advertising-free subscription services such as the BBC prove, the constant need for advertising companies to capture our attention drives an arms race of creativity in the sector. On the other hand, the question has to be asked: Would the world be better off if all the talent and money in advertising was used in other ways?

My in-built inclination towards the latter question makes me welcome examples of marketing that succeed without spending lots of cash. And that is why Biman’s success in generating publicity by making lemonade out of the lemon of having to retire an old aircraft, has a certain appeal.

It may not be enough to justify the government continuing to prop up the state airline, when the flying public has so many other choices available and taxpayer funds would be better spent improving airport hubs and training flight staff and engineers, but the DC-10 heritage flights do at least show some marketing initiative. Whether that is enough for Biman to one day turn a profit is a more doubtful proposition, but at least it gives taxpayers more cause for hope.

– See more at: