Cartagena’s Secret Service Scandal, Spirit Airlines and Outraged Latinos

By Lili Gil, Cofounder XL Alliance, Hispanic Market Strategist (

How much more do you want to hear about the U.S. Secret Service sex scandal in Cartagena, Colombia? While American media continues to obsess over the gory details behind a night of too much ‘fun,’ a parallel story of outrage and marketing non-sense has emerged causing Spirit Airlines to shut down its campaign ‘Get More Bang for your Buck.’

Leveraging the hype and attention over the news in Cartagena, the ‘cheap’ airline -figuratively and literally speaking- took opportunistic advantage of the news to create a banner ad and promotion implying sex tourism to Cartagena, Colombia. While this is not the first time Spirit Airlines uses racy advertising to lure its customers, this time around the collateral damage of poor insights, targeting and messaging may result in a big hit to the bottom line by upsetting Latinos at large. Past racy advertisements by the airline have featured mocking of the BP oil disaster, use of the MILF acronym on its promotions and even a funny twist on Schwarzenegger’s indiscretions.
While the racy tactic seems ‘on brand’ for and airline whose CEO, Ben Baldanza, has defended in the past their racy approach in public; this ‘fun’ twist on a promotion to Cartagena may have much bigger consequences than upsetting a few Colombians.

So, what lesson can marketers learn from this fiasco?

1. Contextualize your offer. While sex sells and various categories of products do leverage sex-appeal to reach their consumers, in this case the sex-angle is out of context with a destination known for its historic value, colonial heritage, architecture and accolades as world heritage designated by UNESCO. This is no ‘spring break’ destination or Latin-American sin city, which makes the offer totally disconnected and irrelevant with the nature of the destination or product offer.

2. Know your target. Who is flying to Cartagena, Colombia? Stand at Cartagena’s Rafael Núñez International Airport and you will quickly get a first hand glimpse at the consumer target. The arrivals area is paraded by wealthy European foreigners followed by hundreds of wedding guests landing almost daily to attend some of the most exclusive wedding parties in the region. Cartagena is a desirable location for thousands of upscale weddings of the Colombian elite and many foreigners who make the cobble stone beauty center-stage for their love story. A profile very far from the restless wanting to simply enjoy a fun weekend escapade.

3. Evaluate the long-term impact of your campaign. Is a quick opportunistic move the right long-term strategy? In this particular case, getting racy not only has impacted the brand’s perception with Colombians in the U.S. and abroad but it has had a collateral damage effect on perpetuating stereotypes of Latinos and their country’s or origin. Is Barry Biffle, Chief Marketing Officer of Spirit Airlines not reading the Census reports and growth trends of America’s consumer base? Upsetting an influential group that represents 43% of U.S. growth and $1 trillion of buying power is simply dumb, shortsighted and stupid! The outrage, online petitions and flood of bad PR has shut down the promotion in 24 hours. Also, not only Colombians are upset by this tactic but also millions of Latinos who see this as dis-service to the reputation of Colombians and Latinas.

While Spirit Airlines has not published any formal statements or apology, one thing is true; the loud voice of millions of angry Latinos are being heard with storied published in hundreds of online postings, blogs and major outlets like ABC, CNN and Fox News. Student organizations in the U.S. like PorColombia have shared their concern with the thousands of members of the organization and Colombia’s Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism has publicly condemned the tasteless advertising tactic, demanding a formal apology.

Clearly, common sense still prevails for good marketing and basic principles of human respect are always the best strategy regardless of the target. And even more important, don’t upset the group that is paced to contribute to the core of your growth in the U.S.; Latinos.

Lili Gil is cofounder of XL Alliance, business and politics TV media contributor and creator of the online channel Moments2CulturRise. She has also been selected by the World Economic Forum as only one of 190 Young Global Leaders. You can follow Lili Gil on Twitter @liligil. Also subscribe to for the latest market news.

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