Comic Relief and British Airways – Hypocrisy, paradox of consumer capitalism or clever marketing?

Last night I received an email from British Airways (BA) inviting me to buy raffle tickets to ‘be part of comedy history and laugh along at our record-breaking comedy gig in the sky’ as part of their Flying Start promotion.

In partnership with Comic Relief, BA is giving punters, for a £3 (optional) donation, the chance to win one 75 pairs of tickets to be part of an attempt at setting ‘a new Guinness World Record title for the “Highest Stand-Up Comedy Gig in the World” in support of this year’s Red Nose Day. The flight, which will last 2.5 hours will showcase a number of British comedians such as Dara O’Brian  and the audience will be treated to ‘champagne and refreshments’.

If ever there was a pseudo event, this is it and, judging by the stories of it on Google news, the stunt is working.

The promotion is understandable given the 2010 partnership made between Comic Relief and British Airways whereby BA agreed to collecting ‘spare change’ from its passengers and also undertake its own fund-raising initiatives via its Flying Start charity. In total, over the three year partnership, it is hoped that £8 million can be raised. This is a fair sum for what is a worthy and admirable  cause.  One also must not overlook the massive benefits for BA in free advertising generated from the pseudo event and the partnership more generally and even more important the attempt to create a positive association with the airline and its status as a responsible ‘corporate citizen’ doing its bit because ‘it cares’.  The use of the event for shameless corporate promotion is also made explicitly clear in the  ‘Terms & Conditions’ of the contest itself.

As an airline, British Airways is inevitably an intimately bound up in debates over climate change; its business model is premised on greenhouse gas emissions. Depending whose statistics you believe (those produce by research commissioned by the airline industry or from NGOs concerned with climate change issues) the estimated amount of emissions varies.  One figure that the aviation industry wold agree with is that aviation accounts for approximately 3% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions.  Having said this, arriving at a figure for airline emissions also depends on how you calculate them as a UK government research paper on Aviation and Climate Change makes clear.  Where there is no (or at least there should be no) debate is that a) man made climate change is happening b) the aviation industry contributes to man-made climate change.

Of course, the aviation industry doesn’t do this on its own, it is us – the public – who fill the seats.  According to Friends of the Earth, airline travel is increasing and is expecting to rise further which means that CO2 emissions will only increase.  One way to reduce CO2 emissions is to encourage people to travel by air less or consider alternative means of transportation.  Another way is through the increased regulation of the industry. British Airways acknowledges its role in causing climate change on its website stating ‘We realise that climate change is perhaps the biggest long term challenge the world faces’ though they state that aviation is only a ‘small fraction’ of this bigger problem but still list various initiatives they are undertaking.

Back to Comic Relief, Comic Relief supports a number of worthy charitable causes and initiatives. Amongst the causes supported by Comic Relief is climate change. The charity places particular emphasis on helping those at risk from the  effects of climate change. In one piece they note,

Comic Relief recognises the negative impacts of climate change especially on the very poorest people in Africa. We’re supporting projects which help people in Africa change the way they live due to the effect climate change is having on their lives

The claims made by Comic Relief are backed up by additional research and policy reports, such as the BBC World Service Trust‘s initiative ‘Africa Talks Climate‘  which recognises it is those who contribute the least to climate change who are impacted the most.

By now you probably see where this is going. Comic Relief together with British Airways is holding an event which will inevitably contribute to climate change in order to raise money for climate change (and other causes).  While I recognize that in an age of globalization international travel is important, the event in question is a pseudo event created to essentially get media attention to advertise the cause of Comic Relief as well as raise a few pounds for charity and reward punters who engage in spurious (or perhaps conspicuous or even ‘ethical‘?) consumption. My problem is in deciding if this is hypocrisy, clever marketing or paradox of consumer capitalism or all three?

An act of hypocrisy?

This perhaps the easiest charge to make. It is often made at say anti-capitalist protesters for buying ‘blue jeans’ as means to try an immediately dismiss the anti-capitalist position. Of course, this argument is flawed but can have a powerful emotional impact. My concern is to avoid this ’emotional’ trap.

Still, one must appreciate the apparent disconnect in organising a promotional activity to an ‘exclusive’ event with celebrity headliners which raises money for a cause that the very event contributes to. Granted the emissions from a single flight are small so one could retort with ‘drop in the ocean’ type response but still doesn’t principle matter?

In terms of the potential  ‘hypocrisy’ of the celebrities involved such as Dara O’Briain, Jack Whitehall and Jon Richardson through their support of climate change campaigns, none of the comedians have charitable causes associated with them on Look to the stars thus it is unclear if any of them are involved in any sort of environmental campaigning.

Clever marketing and a means to validate offsetting and carbon markets?

As media stunt it is already getting coverage (thus free advertising and building awareness about the cause). If the marketers who thought up this idea have any brains at all they would also realise the potential hypocrisy of creating a needless flight as part of a promotion.  Perhaps, this is even part of their plan? One way to garner even more coverage is to wait for some poor sucker (such as me) to fall into the ‘hypocrisy trap’. The ‘controversy’ or ‘scandal’ around this would allow for  even more coverage about Comic Relief and provide British Airways with a platform to issue a press release stating it that it is 1) concerned with climate change 2)  argue that aviation is only a ‘fraction’ of the cause of climate change 3) state that they are paying the ‘carbon offsetting’ charge for each of the tickets on the flight. (By the way, I have read the Terms & Conditions of the contest and it is unclear if BA will be paying the equivalent to offset the carbon emissions for the passengers on the fight). The danger here then is the validation of BA’s carbon offsetting programme and a larger validation of the idea of ‘carbon markets’ which itself is contested.

Paradox of consumer capitalism?

As mentioned above, in an age of globalization, air travel is inevitable. People are going to travel and from this perspective the larger partnership with BA makes sense.  The challenge rests in the spurious pseudo event. Breaking the record for the ‘Highest Stand-Up Comedy Gig in the World’ is not of signifier of the potential of the human race being not only reached but exceeded. It is a stunt. A  news hook dreamed up by media savvy marketers that, coupled  with the appropriate celebrity capital, is intended to make great copy for media outlets keen to report on celebrities and particularly celebrities doing something for a good cause.

The stunt, however, hints at one of the root causes of climate change which is conspicuous consumption. Others have written more extensively on the paradox of consumer capitalism and the rise of what Jo Littler calls the activist-consumer.  As a consumer you have the chance to ‘win’ tickets to an exclusive event but you can still feel good that, even if you don’t win, your money will go to a worthy cause. The ‘winners’ are in an even stranger position if you accept the premise that climate change is driven by the developed nations and our luxurious lifestyle as captured by our carbon footprints. Because by winning the contest you will directly exacerbate the situation further.  Granted, as noted above, I appreciate that the contribution of a single flight in the bigger picture is minimal. However the very contest seems to reflect (and perhaps) reinforce the short-sited spurious consumption that characterizes the lifestyle of the West and its general attitude towards climate change.

So what is it?

To be honest, I am not sure where I stand as I see elements of all three. However, I  am curious to see what extent Comic Relief has thought this through and will post any response I get here.

Your take on this is welcome too…



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11 responses to “Comic Relief and British Airways – Hypocrisy, paradox of consumer capitalism or clever marketing?

  1. Sophia

    Patrick, I thought you should be aware that British Airways is paying a carbon offset charge for every passenger on board this special flight which is raising money for Red Nose Day.

    The airline has been taking steps to limit its impact on climate change for longer than any other airline, and is committed to reducing its net carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2050

    This is a one-off unique event, with thousands of pounds being raised for Red Nose Day as a result.

    Sophia – British Airways, Consumer PR

    • Sophia,

      Thanks for your reply. As noted, from my reading of the Terms and Conditions, (and they are long so perhaps I missed something) BA’s commitment to pay the carbon offset charge for winners of this flight was not stated. Can I find this commitment in any of the promotional literature?

      Second question, does British Airways have an official policy that for any contest or promotion that it engages in, that it will pay the equivalent carbon offset charge for any seat/ticket/travel that is given away?

    • Pete

      is that a 50% reduction from 1990 levels – the standard date for such measurements?
      No doubt you are aware that the UK has legally binding targets of 80% reductions over 1990 levels by 2050, why should aviation get away with lower?

  2. James Blake

    Carbon offsetting = greenwash

    BA are pushing for new runways and more capacity so therefore are NOT committed to reducing it’s CO2 emissions.

    Don’t believe the lies

  3. Pingback: Comic Relief and British Airways – Clever marketing, hypocrisy or paradox of consumer capitalism? | pmmcc | « WorldWright's …

  4. Aero engineer

    I have a degree in Aeronautical Engineering – and I can assure you that there is no way that the aviation industry can get its emissions down to 50% by 2050, and even if it did, it would still not be enough to meet the challenges ahead by a long shot.

  5. Thanks for the comments thus far. I am still waiting for a reply from BA as to my query and will put together a summary post soon on the issue.

  6. Sophia, This event highlights your company’s contradictory stance on climate change. On the one hand you concede ‘climate change is perhaps the biggest long term challenge the world faces’ and so get your charity shoes on. But on the other hand you are going to pump a load of CO2 into the atmosphere to address it. Paying the carbon offsets only pays lip service to the economics of the situation, not the science. The science says we have already passed dangerous levels of CO2 into the atmosphere, and you are going to pump more in. I don’t care how much money you raise your approach to the problem is frivolous.

    PS Great article Patrick . How many tonnes of CO2 will the airliner pollute in 2.5 hours?

  7. The carbon offsets are a bit of a red herring in this story , which imho is why the BA PR department address it. The much more potent questions are the ones posed by the headline. It is sad and perhaps cynical that companies use charity events as part of their strategy, but this one really does take the biscuit. Shame. I liked Dara O’Brian before this.

  8. Thanks to all those who have commented. I have posted an update as to where correspondence on this topic is at thus far in a new blog post.

  9. Pingback: Update on ‘Gig in the Sky’- Comic Relief and British Airways – Clever marketing, hypocrisy or paradox of consumer capitalism? | pmmcc |

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