Can General Aviation “Tip” Again? (Pt II)

Developing a “Sticky” Message

by Chris Findley, CFI

While waiting for my kids at their bus stop, a light-plane flew over.  From where I sat in our van, it looked like a Cessna 172.  I found myself wishing it was me zooming overhead.  I looked around at the other parents waiting in the parking lot and I wondered what their impressions and thoughts were of the Cessna –assuming they even paid attention to it.

Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, The Tipping Point, begins with the observation that most trends and epidemics are not caused by a large number of people.  Rather, they are often the result of a few influential and motivated people.  Some of these people are able to have a large influence because of their connections to others or by their ability to influence those around them.  But contrary to conventional wisdom, most trends start with a few.  He aptly calls this the “Law of the Few”

Gladwell’s second major point in The Tipping Point is “The Stickiness Factor”.   He says, “The specific quality that a message needs to be successful is the quality of ‘stickiness’.  Is the message memorable?  Is it so memorable, in fact, that it can create change, that it can spur someone to action?”1

Where’s the Beef?

I believe one of the most difficult things to overcome in General Aviation (GA) is the lack of self-reflection on what GA’s message actually is.  I’m not speaking of a particular business’s message.  They will determine that based on their own services and market.  Rather, I’m asking what is the message that we, as an industry, wish to promote?   When someone, waiting for their kids hears a small plane fly over, what do we want them to think?

Other industries have asked these questions.  Remember the “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner!” campaign?  It was launched in 1992 by the Cattleman’s Beef Board.  They recognized a problem–the negative image and growing public concern over the consumption of red meat.  They developed a plan and a message and as an industry, sought to change public perception.  Was it successful?  The “It’s what’s for dinner campaign” is one of the most recognizable taglines in history and is recognized by 88% of Americans.2

Therefore, I believe one of the first things we must do if we want to positively move public opinion to a more favorable position on GA, we have to think critically about what we want people to take away from their contact with General Aviation.

Considering the Message

The AOPA’s “General Aviation Serves America” campaign is a great campaign aimed at raising awareness of the ways General Aviation is an integral part of American communities.  The campaign, which makes use of the Law of the Few by involving well-known actors Harrison Ford and Morgan Freeman and others, is primarily aimed at raising awareness of how regulatory changes and legislation will negatively affect GA.

While this message is needed, I think there are a couple of ways to improve it.  First, I think it is a “circle the wagons” message that is more effective with the flying public than the non-flying public.  The people most likely to have this message “stick” with them are pilots and those in the aviation community who are already concerned about increased regulation and user fees.

Secondly, it seems limited in scope.  These ads don’t seem to make anyone want to do anything.  These ads don’t invite one to participate in General Aviation.  I think that message is crucial to the re-awakening many of us long for.

I am a proud AOPA member and I think they do a phenomenal job of advocating for General Aviation.  My task here is not to be nit-picky or critical, but to think of how to craft a GA message that is truly for the masses, that is both broad and “sticky” without being defensive.  I believe this can come in two distinct ways: telling a practical story and engaging in invitation more than information.

Tell a Practical and Real Story

Within the last couple of months we’ve seen the best and the worst in GA.  The tragic suicide flight of Joe Stack into the IRS office building in Austin, TX certainly brought general aviation to the forefront of the public.  Public concern began to swell again about the light-plane fleet and public safety.  The negative comments directed at lightplanes are as silly as criticizing Ryder panel-vans since that is what Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  But nonetheless, the image of GA is further marred.

But also in the last couple of months we have seen GA rise to the forefront of the relief efforts in Haiti.  Did you know a full 40% of the relief flights into Haiti are General Aviation aircraft?  Have you heard of the generosity of businesses that have given permission for their mulit-million-dollar aircraft to be used for relief operations?  Have you heard some of the stories of pilots landing on unimproved dirt roads in an effort to get supplies and help to a nation in need?

That’s the story we need to be telling.  Why?  Because, people respond to messages that show specific practical benefits that engage them on an emotional level.  We’re not just telling them that GA is important and serves a purpose, we’re dramatically showing them exactly how.  So the first message I think we can deliver is that, as an industry General Aviation, truly does serve America (and the world) and here’s an amazing, specific way.  What if we created a campaign, a message, around this?  Or perhaps the GA Serves America Campaign could pick this up?

How about a tagline of: “General Aviation: Changing the world one flight at a time.”


We need Aviation Evangelists. What if we took a Harrison Ford spot and crafted a messag such as this:

“Hi, I’m Harrison Ford.  I’ve had the privilege of playing a number of roles over my 40 year career in the movies.  Acting is a passion for me and I love it.  But I have another passion that I’d like to share with you –my passion for aviation.  For the last 20 years, I’ve been a licensed pilot.  Like many people, I’d always had the dream of flying, but it wasn’t until I started lessons that I discovered the freedom and joy of flight for myself.  You can know that too.  There are over a 250,000 pilots, just like you, who come from all walks of life.  They are businessmen and women, construction workers, doctors and teachers. There is no one pilot “type”—just someone who is realizing their dream of flight.   Flying is not out of your reach, it’s as close as your local airport.  Call one of your local flight schools, listed below, and see for yourself.  It’s one adventure you don’t want to miss.”

How about a tagline of: General Aviation: Live the Adventure!

As the ad mentions, it could be run by groups like the AOPA or NAFI nationally or regionally, and sponsored by local flight schools who could have their contact information added to it.

Other celebrity pilots and potential spokesmen might be: Clint Eastwood, Dennis Quaid, Kurt Russell, Alan Jackson, Sydney Pollack, Arnold Palmer, Tim McGraw, and former President George Bush, Sr.

Stickiness Revisited

Developing a sticky message necessitates our development of a message worthy of remembering.  For those of us already passionate about aviation, it’s easy, it’s stuck.  We know the joy, thrill, and adventure of flying.   But there are many others for whom this is not the case.

You and I can do this now.  We can be a part of getting this message out.  We can tell the practical stories.  We can be Aviation evangelists and find others to join us (maybe even a few well-known names).

As we do this, perhaps a new message about GA will permeate our society.  Perhaps in the near future, when a small plane flies over people will think about how awesome those small planes are and how they really do serve a unique role.

And perhaps they’ll say to themselves, “I bet I can do that…where’s that Flight School’s webpage?”

Read Can General Aviation “Tip” Again? (Pt I): The Law of the Few >>>

1.  Gladwell, The Tipping Point, Page 92



2 responses to “Can General Aviation “Tip” Again? (Pt II)

  1. Very well spoken.

    I wonder what would make John Q. Public say to himself, “that could be me” instead of “why does GA matter to me.”

    What would make someone think, I can’t live without this?

    What could we do to show them that it touches their lives in everyway!

  2. Pingback: Can General Aviation “Tip” Again, Pt III « The Hangar

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