From Outrage to Advocate: American Airlines' LGBTQ Marketing

Passengers seated inside the cabin of an airplane

Outrage marketing is a viral marketing tactic that capitalizes on the shock, anger, or indignation of consumers, whether intentional or unintentional, to gain awareness and win public favor.


Unlike IHOP’s outrage marketing campaign which was intentionally designed to shock and entertain audiences everywhere, this story about American Airlines’ “Pillows & Blankets” incident demonstrates how organizations can transform a public outrage into a winning marketing strategy.


In April of 1993, American Airlines was scrambling to address widespread outrage among the gay community after a fax that was leaked to national news outlets went viral describing that a crew member requested “a change of pillows and blankets due to the number of ‘activists returning from the gay march on Washington.’” American Airlines quickly responded to this event and what transpired afterward transformed the American Airlines brand, raised greater awareness for the airline, and substantially increased its revenues.

Capitalizing on Outrage

American Airlines immediately apologized and set out to make things right. What resulted was a dedicated “Rainbow Team” to implement company policies such as LGBT employee resource groups, adding sexual orientation to the workplace nondiscrimination policies, and company-wide benefits for same-sex couples to support LGBT employees and customers.

What started as a promise to the LGBT community and a $300,000 budget in 1994, resulted in over $190 million in revenue for the airline by 1999.

During this time, American Airlines became the voice of LGBT communities in the travel and hospitality industry and earned multiple awards for their leadership such as:

  1. Out & About Editor’s Choice Award for Best Airline (1995 and 1996)
  2. San Francisco AIDS Foundation Corporate Leadership Award (1998)
  3. AIDS Funders Conference Corporate Leadership Award (1998)

To this day, American Airlines has maintained its commitment to the LGBT community. In March of 2019, the Human Rights Center awarded them with 100% on the Corporate Equality Index, which rigorously rates organizations on their business policies and practices that protect LGBTQ workers.

Conversations are the Key to Outrage Marketing Success

A common thread in outrage marketing stunts or recovery strategies is the conversation. Put simply, it’s the back-and-forth between consumers across partisan lines that makes outrage marketing so valuable.

In the case of American Airlines, the LGBT community stood up saying their treatment was unacceptable, and once American Airlines apologized and started accommodating the marginalized community, anti-LGBT consumers raised their voices in opposition. However, this backlash was “short-lived and insubstantial.”

Search and social media algorithms inform us that user engagement metrics influence the virality of content. In modern outrage marketing campaigns like Nike’s “Just Do It - Dream Crazy” campaign featuring former NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, shares in favor and disgust, comment sections full of divisive arguments, national news coverage, and Twitter threads longer than CVS receipts spread the message far and wide.

Outrage Marketing Recovery Strategy

Outrage marketing is a high-risk, high-reward marketing strategy. The fact is, not every marketing strategy is going to pay off like Nike’s or IHOP’s campaigns. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

For example, earlier this year, Gillette’s toxic masculinity ad outraged feminists when the nation was neck-deep in the #MeToo movement. Their ad received a lot of critical feedback from feminists, but the outrage didn’t stop Gillette from taking stances on controversial subjects. Instead, they redoubled their efforts with an ad campaign featuring Sampson Brown, a transgender activist, learning how to shave with his father.

When it comes to outrage marketing, the famous adage, “There is no such thing as bad publicity,” is true except when bad publicity isn’t transformed into a winning outrage marketing recovery initiative.



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