This Virgin Airlines tweet shows how not to be a brand online


Brands are known for doing bad tweets. They do these bad tweets because brands, like adult humans, just want to get in touch with the teens (or millennials—tomato, tomahto). At best, it’s inoffensive and unobtrusive—hapless “bae”s and “on fleek”s being released into the growing expanse of garbage we dump on the social web. At worst, it’s overly cozy to the point of being offensive and gross.

Somewhere in the vicinity of offensive and gross is where a recent tweet from Virgin America—an airline that brands itself as fun, ~flirty~ and cool—lands. While it’s not uncouth for Virgin to tweet #relatable #content that’s a bit edgier than their brand name might imply, this week, the airline took things a bit too far.

Getting past the fact that asking users to sort themselves into categories is weird and unsettling, reducing the LGBTQ community to just the G and then further reducing that community into sexual positions is very distasteful. But what makes it especially distasteful is how the tweet juxtaposes against @VirginAmerica‘s current avatar—a cartoon of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, with a circular rainbow in the background.

Virgin is the official airline of this year’s San Francisco Pride for the eighth time in a row. The account has previously (and awkwardly) voiced support for Caitlyn Jenner. And yet, somehow, we ended up here—at a creepy, visceral sexualization of the community the airline is seemingly trying to support.

When asked about the tweet, a spokesperson for Virgin America told Fusion it had nothing to do with SF Pride (which takes place this weekend)—the timing is coincidental. The tweet was meant to be read as a pun about where flight passengers choose to “stow” their “carry-on bags.” (Get it?)

Yet while the company also said the response has been “overwhelmingly positive,” a small backlash has criticized @VirginAmerica for being crass about the sexual habits of a community that fights to be seen as something greater than its sexual habits.

The Internet has a relatively short attention span, and it’s rare that the sun sets on a day that didn’t include some sort of brand-faux pas. We can’t stop all activity to react every time something is posted in bad taste. We’d never get anything done.

It is standard practice, though, for a tweet that sounds alarms to be deleted and apologized for in a timely manner. But the tweet still stands. And in light of Virgin’s other #TalkBirdytoMe posts (like this one, this one, this one, and this one), the company sees it as simply another in a string of playful tweets—all striving to do a thing #brands can’t quite figure out how to do on the Internet: connect in a genuine way.

As corporations figure out how to navigate the web like real human beings with mass and bodies and flesh, they occasionally make mistakes. It’s odd, considering the teams behind these Twitter accounts are people, too. Just like you and me. But in attempting to appear welcoming, approachable and human, brands risk coming across like aliens trying desperately to fit in on a new planet, mimicking behavior they perceive to be “normal.” It’s awkward, it’s weird, and in this case, it’s offensive and off-putting.

Hannah Smothers is a reporter for Fusion’s Sex & Life section, a Texpat, and a former homecoming princess.

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