10/12/2010 11:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Scottevest vs Delta

Via WalletPop, Traveling clothing company Scottevest is engaged in a very public fight with Delta's Sky Magazine after Delta rejected an ad which sought to promote the usefulness of Scottevest as a means of avoiding checked baggage fees. Here's the ad in question:

Scottevest Delta AdThe key lines are the headline and sub-headline, which read "The Most Stylish Way to Beat the System" and "SCOTTEVEST Travel Clothing Has Specialized Pockets to Help You Stay Organized & Avoid Extra Baggage Fees," respectively. According to Scottevest CEO Scott Jordan, they offered to change the headline to "Travel the World in Style & Leave Your Baggage Behind," but would not change the sub-headline. Jordan reasoned:

When I was told that they rejected our compromise headline as well, I responded as follows in an email, "Frankly, if they object to the 'avoid the baggage fees' line, they need to stop charging baggage fees. I don't think we should change it. We have agreed to remove 'beat the system,' but will not change the sub-heading. The fact that airlines charge baggage fees is just that: A fact. We just help make it less painful."

Jordan went so far as to post his thoughts on the rejection from Delta on YouTube:

One of Jordan's conclusions from his post explaining the time line of the conflict with Delta really stands out to me:

The bottom line: it became abundantly clear that the airlines would never allow me to advertise a product that costs them money and makes me money. I believe it wasn't my headline, it was the core concept behind my product that they were rejecting. With that, I decided to embrace the controversy.

There's really something to this. The No Baggage Challenge has shown that a traveler who is willing to radically alter his or her packing habits can literally travel around the world without a single bag - checked or carry-on. At a time when airlines are raking in nearly a billion dollars a quarter in baggage fees, it's not shocking that they are threatened by products which reduce the need for checked bags. Traveling without bags is doable, whether airlines like it or not.

But here's what's really odd to me about this situation. While Scottevest and Rolf Potts have shown that it is technically possible to travel extensively with only what you fit into the pockets of the clothes you're wearing, how likely is it that this is something that catches on to the extent that it legitimately costs airlines money? If there are 100 people in the United States that embrace Scottevest and the No Baggage Challenge way of travel in a permanent and committed way in the next year, I'd be surprised. After all, while there has been a proof of concept, realization of it requires a pretty dramatic change in travel choices. Let's face it: Americans love stuff and living without much stuff is anathema to most of us. This gets back to Jordan's point that Delta (and likely other airlines) are simply rejecting "the core concept behind" Scottevest, which makes Delta look pretty petty in my book.

Oh and there's one more wrinkle to this. Scottevest was seeking to advertise in the back of the seat magazine, Delta Sky. I don't know about you but I might crack open an airline magazine about once out of every twenty-five flights I take, usually if I don't have printed material to read during takeoff and landing. I have to imagine that while everyone who reads Delta Sky is a traveler, there is a very small market of people who are actively seeking out ways to reduce their checked baggage lifestyle. On the flip side, the controversy over this ad has received massive attention and interest online:

[W]ithin 24 hours, the story blew up. AOL's WalletPop and GearDiary covered it, many reporters expressed interest in it, over 1 million people saw it on Twitter, as it was retweeted by some social media heavy hitters like @scobleizer, and there are over 230K Google results for delta scottevest ad.

While it's hard to say for certain, I'd imagine that the people who are reading about this on travel blogs, gear blogs and cost-saving blogs are more likely to be the sort of people who are interested in Scottevest products and will see them as a way to both save money and screw airlines that choose to bully small businesses (and, by extension, their customers) the way Delta is treating Scottevest. This is great exposure for Scottevest and bad publicity for Delta. It will likely lead consumers to learn about a product they didn't know existed and a way of travel that allows them to avoid spending money on airline baggage fees. Moreover, as this conflict is going on for not just days now, but weeks, it has only given Scottevest a larger platform to promote their product as a solution to airline checked baggage fees.

Gear Diary has must-read additional reporting on this saga, including a rebuttal to the notion floated by Delta that Scottevest baited them with an ad the company knew the airline would reject. Dan Cohen writes:

So, in part, I am writing this to set the record straight. Do I think Scott Jordan intentionally baited Delta into this for the sake of the media story and the resultant PR?

Absolutely not.

In fact, I don't think it, I know it.

How do I know it? Because at my request Scott shared some of his internal business email exchanges with me. This was after I had agreed to report on the emails' content without sharing specifics. These emails make it clear that Scott went into this media buy fully expecting that SCOTTEVEST would pay for their ad's placement with the intention of reaping sales from the exposure of the full-page ad.

Scott was surprised when it was rejected, and he tried to rework the ad in a manner that would be more acceptable to Delta but would not compromise the way in which he has positioned his company and its core message. He was increasingly frustrated to find his ads rejected time and again.

The emails I saw make it clear that this was an honest exchange which occurred in real-time, and it went from bad to worse. This was not some plot by Scott to draw Delta into a pissing match, and it is surely not a scandal. [Emphasis in the original]

Cohen goes on to look at some specifics of Delta's charge - namely that an ad provided to them by Scottevest as "representative" of their ad designs for submission was approved and then Scottevest submitted a different, Delta-specific ad. Cohen provides ample visual evidence to support Scottevest's claim that the ad submission provided to get them pre-approved to advertise was merely representative, as it was one that had ran in Men's Journal previously and clearly not designed to target the Delta audience. Cohen notes, "So many reasons were given as to why his ads were being denied that it began to smack of the "spaghetti approach", where you throw enough possibilities out there and hope that one will stick." This strikes me as about right. Delta's responses have been shifting throughout this debacle for them and none really seem resonant. After all, while it's clear that this fight has been a PR boon to Scottevest, you can't blame them for taking advantage of Delta's censorship (which not incidentally takes place to protect their ability to collect millions of dollars in checked baggage fees).

The path of this story is pretty standard: a big company is threatened by a small business and tries to muscle it out of the way. Normally this is a productive prospect for big companies. But when you're dealing with a new media savvy small business who is trying to talk to a market of frustrated travelers, the dynamics are shifted. As a result, Delta is getting bad press and Scottevest is making a very big name for itself. Delta can continue to try to punch downward at Scottevest, but that isn't likely to win them many customers anxious to pay for checking their luggage.

Originally posted on Blogger Hamlin, my gear, technology, and travel blog.

Update, 11/5/10:
When this post was first written, I had no relationship with Scottevest. Since then, they are sponsoring a No Baggage Challenge for Charity that I am taking part in. I will be blogging a 10 day trip to Japan with no bags and only Scottevest gear. Their sponsorship includes some items of clothing and a charitable donation to an organization on whose Board of Directors I serve.