The Washington Post reported that Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola have apologized for nudging passengers “to slip their number to their ‘plane crush’ on napkins.”

Since then, the questions have been pouring in here.

“Was this cool? Or creepy?”

“How can people be creeped out by this?!?”

“What were they thinking?!”

I’ve got some in-plane advertising experience, so I’m in a good position to answer these questions. For example, back in the early 2000s, my agency, DiMassimo Goldstein, created a series of in-plane experiences for Crunch Fitness and JetBlue.

The first one, titled “Airplane Yoga – Or How to Annoy Your Fellow Passengers and Stay Limber at 28,000 feet” didn’t annoy fellow passengers at all. In fact, it was a hit, won awards and contributed to JetBlue being named “Marketer of the Year.” Advertising Age magazine even chose our Airplane Yoga as the key image for their article about JetBlue’s marketing and advertising, which was also well-served by The Ad Store at that time.

However, it worked too well. People actually did the exercises, leading to hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to armrests. Crunch and JetBlue came back to us for an emergency fix. We created “Flying Pilates” and enjoyed several more seasons of success in the Mile-High Advertising Club.

All that is to point out that the inside of a plane is a special place. A marketer and advertising creator would do well to study the changing culture inside those flying tubes.

Today, such an inquisitive advertiser would find a high-stress environment packed with people in a panic over personal space. Recent social media conversations have gone so far as to demonize people who commit the (new?) social sin of reclining their seat back! At least one poster referred to such people as “[email protected]#holes.” This poster was not a crank but a respected senior member of the advertising creative community. While a few [email protected]#holes were heard from in reply, the vast majority of the comments were in sympathy with the original post.

Keeping up with reading about onboard culture would have turned up articles about the dawning awareness of the alarming frequency of in-air sexual assault and harassment. This past July, there were many stories about this issue in a broad range of major media as the FBI released a report saying that sexual assaults on planes are rising “at an alarming rate.”

Delta and Diet Coke would have reasonably expected their agencies to have the diligence to keep up with news related to in-air experience and the empathy to intuit what effect that news might have on passengers.

But, they didn’t.

I believe brands are built through inspiring actions.

My best professional guess is that so do the people behind these creepy napkins. As a creative leader and brand builder, I have sympathy for them and applaud what they were trying to do. They saw Diet Coke as a refresher, ice-breaker and potential connector. They also saw Diet Coke as unapologetically fun. They wanted to let the spirit of the bubbles enliven the environment on-board.

These are noble and on-brand intentions.

Further, they wanted to do it with something more than an ad. They wanted to invite people into the experience, rather than just telling them something to truly engage them and perhaps delight them in the process. And they actually came up with a charming and creative way to do that.

So, in the middle of this faux pas there is a rare creative victory. The creative team deserved to be proud. However, they were poorly served by the strategists and other decision makers around them, who ought to have been more diligent, who ought to have done them the painful favor of saying “No.”

This was, after all, not a social media post but a program that required the deliberate pace and decision making that goes with printing and distributing thousands of pieces of paper. This was not the action of some lone poster, but the deliberate calculation of a team.

So, not cool. No, definitely not cool. And, though creative, absolutely creepy.

Can’t get enough of Mark? Take a look at his penmanship on Lester Wunderman.