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Time to take my medicine…

On Friday, I took note of a holiday promotion by Canada's West Jet Airlines, in which the company set it up so that some 250 passengers boarding a flight had to tell a kiosk what they wanted for Christmas while getting their boarding passes scanned; when they went to collect their bags at their destination, they found that everything they'd asked for was waiting for them on the luggage carousel.

The entire process was captured on video, and posted to YouTube; at this point, it has been seen by more than 19 million people … which means that West Jet has gotten a lot of free publicity, certainly in excess of what it cost them to buy all those presents (which ranged from socks and underwear to flat screen televisions … it all depended on what people asked for).

You can see the video at left. And it admittedly is heartwarming…

But, I commented: I cannot shake the feeling that all this promotion does is reinforce the notion that you can always get what you want … at least sometimes.

At the risk of being accused of being a Scrooge, I watched the video and only could think that the people getting these presents were all people who could afford plane tickets.

And that maybe the socks and underwear and flat screen televisions and all the other presents might have been better distributed to people who actually are needy.

I don't want to diminish the effort, or the results. But I can't help but think that maybe West Jet missed an even bigger opportunity here.

Now, I very quickly got deluged with email suggesting that, yes, I am a Scrooge who has missed the point.

One MNB user wrote:

You've probably already had a dozen emails to this effect, but NPR reported yesterday that WestJet vowed to supply tickets to a needy family if the video on YouTube received 100K views.  It received that before the end of the day...I'm assuming they're going to make good on their promise…

I thought the video was incredibly heartwarming -- because it renews the idea of the magic of Christmas and makes us all remember that just because we can't reach out and touch a physical presence called Santa...doesn't mean that he and his magic don't exist.  (Ask Virginia!)

There's probably more than a few people on that plane who forewent a lot of things for themselves so they could afford that ticket...and more than a few who never got what they wanted from Santa.

As someone who still hears the sleigh bells ring (reference Polar Express) -- I BELIEVE.  Don't sell WestJet short for helping someone else believe, if only for a little while.

And from another:

I don't disagree that there was a bigger opportunity to help people in need, but was this about giving or about cementing customer loyalty and affinity for the brand. I had never heard of West Jet but if I had an opportunity to fly them, I would probably strongly consider it.

Won't the people that West Jet surprised think twice before flying another airline even if it costs a little bit more? I know I would.

And another:

OMG, ENOUGH already. I’m so tired of people trying to find the negative in everything. This was a great gesture even if it was also a promotional opportunity for West Jet … This wasn’t a plane filled with Millionaires / Billionaires was it? It was most likely hard working people either doing their job or vacationers who worked hard for the money to take the flight. Yes this is the season to remember those less fortunate but why is it so wrong anymore in this country to be successful or to be offered a gift just because “someone” thinks you could “afford” to buy it yourself.

MNB reader Robert Mahon wrote:

Yes, you are are a Scrooge.

MNB reader Peter McNaughton wrote:

Yes every one there "could afford a ticket."

But even those who can afford a ticket….can use  a little help every now and then….as well as a little Joy.

First chance I get…I am flying West Jet.

From one reader:

How could you watch the Westjet video which you described as truly heartwarming, and then say maybe they shouldn't have given their guests the presents, they should have given them to "people who needed them"?  Of course Westjet, and its guests, and you and I should generously support the charities that help the needy - not just at this time of year, but all year round (and from what I know about Westjet, an employee-owned company with a heart, I bet they do more than their share).

But to say that no one who isn't truly needy should get Christmas gifts undermines the spirit of a holiday that celebrates family, friends and community.  And unless you tell me that you aren't giving any gifts to Mrs. Content Guy and the Content kids because you're giving them all to needy people instead, I think you're being unfair in your criticism.  The Westjet video is one of the most brilliant marketing pieces I've ever seen - whoever came up with the idea deserves an even bigger Christmas gift from their employee co-owners, because they've reinforced the brand image tremendously in a way that everyone but Scrooge would think is brilliant.  Go get an egg nog and a candy cane and lighten up - Merry Christmas!

And another:

They wanted to take care of their market. The wanted to expand their market. They were focused on their market. Most of their market has access to Facebook and You Tube. I’m sure that some of the profit that they generate from their market is donated to those that have needs, but are not their market. I am not sure how West Jet can do both at the same time. This activity does not preclude their responsibility to use some of their profits to help the less fortunate. This activity was focused on their market and it worked!

MNB reader Kathy Hogard wrote:

You must be cranky!  Too much shopping?

You completely missed the point here.  I’ve been reading Morning News Beat for a while now and if I’ve learned anything from you it’s to be continuously looking for innovative ideas for your business to attract more consumers.   Well, that’s exactly what West Jet did!  And brilliantly I might add.  That video brought me warm and fuzzy feelings including happy tears!  I was so thrilled to see the looks on those people’s faces.  It gave me goose bumps!  And marketing wise, it will take a lot for me to have bad feelings for West Jet – ever!  And your commentary didn’t even touch on that! 

So let’s talk about the folks on those flights – the children, elderly, and Moms and Dads.  I would be willing to bet that many of them scraped and saved to have enough to purchase those plane tickets.   Sure, there are probably others who can afford to fly but remember, most of us work hard for a living and we don’t have the luxury to decide on a whim to get on a plane tomorrow.  We have to budget for the privilege.

But let’s go with your thought – that perhaps the gifts would have served better going to the needy.  At this time of year, there are folks that need extra help.  I don’t know about you but I do the best I can to help not just during the holidays but all year round.  I hope most do and we all know there are certainly a plethora of programs that work solely to help the needy.  That’s a good thing. 

As for me, I can afford to buy most of the things that I need or just plain want but still have to plan and save for them.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t love being surprised for no reason at all with something, someone knew I wanted and went out of their way to get it for me.  And – I love to do that for others too.  I love to see the joy on their faces.  Not just the needy but everyone. Finally, who knows, perhaps the people who got their Christmas wish will pay it forward.  Think about it – all those folks that were just taking a trip and an airline who will never be forgotten by them because of a unselfish, generous act that made their day and now close to 19 million have seen the video and just like me probably got goose bumps too.

What could 19 million people bring to the world if they all pay it forward somehow – to all classes of people?  That, Kevin, is an eye-opener!

From MNB user Tom DeMott:

Mr Scrooge, bah humbug! Don't be a Grinch; just celebrate the joy of giving and perhaps many of the thousands who view your site will be inspired to give to those less fortunate as well. Merry Christmas, everyone!

And from MNB reader Frank Fay:

Read your comments and watched the video of WestJet.  What immediately came to mind was the movie with Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment and the “Pay It Forward” thought process.  If these folks are inspired, which they could be, then they pay it forward and the world becomes a happier place. It has to start somewhere with someone, right!

Extra credit for a movie reference…

MNB reader Marcheta Luey wrote:

It was a BRILLIANT way to covertly (well, not so much) market themselves!  I mean, 19M viewers?  I watched it (before reading your blip) and, oh by the way, Mr. Scrooge, you haven’t the slightest idea what this organization does or does not for charitable organizations in their markets.  So, stand back and let us herald their good work.  After seeing it and never having heard of them, I wanted to know where they fly and might I have that opportunity.  See, it worked!

One MNB reader wrote:

I myself thought while wiping tears "I wonder if the guy who asked for underwear wishes he'd asked for a new iPhone".  I also wished I'd been on that flight and tried to think if asked what I wanted for Christmas what my answer would be?

I thought most of those on that flight looked like 'the family next door'.  Most likely buying the family plane tickets for that flight came at a lot of thought and perhaps a lot of saving.  Needless to say if they didn't HAVE a digital camera or a flat screen t.v. they couldn't afford one!  And maybe every child should in his lifetime get exactly what he asks for that he knows he most likely WON'T get when asking.  "Seriously?"  That might be my favorite moment, my favorite uttered line, in the video.  The happy surprise to open a gift this little boy only wished for 2 hours prior.

I do not begrudge these West Jet customers their gifts.  And though I often think big companies should do more for the less fortunate maybe behind the scenes they actually do and we just don't know it.  But for the 5 minutes that I watched that video I thought it was a very fine gesture and it made those people smile and have a little more faith in the kindness of strangers which is wonderful anytime of the year but admit Christmas we are all a little more thankful for things.

Perhaps it was done solely as an advertising tool but I refuse to believe that.  Maybe because it is Christmas, maybe because I want to believe there are people in the world who really do want to give without receiving.  The story and video made me smile and cry and gave me hope that there are people who care about other people.

And I still am not sure what it is I myself would have asked for.

From another:

Have you never heard of the Salvation Army kettle and their bell ringers? How about the Marine’s Toys for Tots? Get off the Amazon web set and drive down to a brick and mortar shopping center with collection points for food shelves, bell ringers and even people singing carols. Open your heart and your own wallet and stop telling other people how to give unless you are a government bureaucrat in training.

Ah…what would discourse be without an anti-government shot?

And a cultural shot from another reader:

You're out of bounds with your airline Christmas thoughts. Or ... you're an out of touch east coast elite.

And a slightly personal shot from another:

Give me a break. You’ve become so biased and your commentary has really slipped in the last year or so. I’m starting to view your blog the same as I do the rest of the mainstream media. If this had been one of your pet retailers, like Amazon or Apple, you would have reported this as brilliant and had no complaints. You really need to find your way back to the reporting and commentary that made MNB great or I’m afraid you’ll risk becoming irrelevant.

And another:

You really are becoming a stick-in-the-mud old fart.  Can't anybody do anything without you complaining about it?  West Jet Airlines (like most organizations) has donated many thousands of dollars to various charities throughout the years.  In addition, if you did a simple Google search, you'd find that they have donated many free airline flights to various events such as Haiti recovery assistance, etc.

You really need to relax and drop the pessimistic attitude you're starting to show more and more.  You're only in your mid-50's - stop acting like such an old fogy.


Now, to be fair, not everyone disagreed with me.

MNB user Mike Franklin wrote:

It’s not Scroogish to think that the promotion might have been seen as more altruistic if the passengers were asked what they would like to give to the less fortunate among us, and those gifts were given to the less fortunate in their name, but…

In reality, the bifurcation of the haves and have nots is becoming the norm. So, you are not the Scrooge…scroogism is becoming part of our culture, and that makes me sad.

And from another reader:

I'm with you, Kevin.  You expressed my sentiments about the West Jet promotion exactly.  After seeing countless Facebook posts about how this video "made me BAWL"... and "I'm totally CRYING my eyes out...", etc., I admit I had to see what it was all about.

I agree that it was a brilliant PR move..and it was clever...and it was fun...but move me to tears?  Not so much.  I never cry when everyone in the entire studio audience at "The View" or "Oprah" (or whatever shows are on when I'm working) goes home with a free iPad, $500 gift cards, or a whole bag full of Martha Stewart's newest craft gadgets, either.

And I'm known to get misty-eyed just by being asked if I prefer paper or plastic.

From MNB reader Elizabeth Archerd:

We are not Scrooges to wonder why piling on consumer goods for people with enough cash, as you noted, to pay for a flight, should count as some kind of "true spirit of Christmas." Yeah, my eyes teared up too - a product of well-time music and camera shots of teary recipients and cute kids. It's formula and I felt manipulated even as my tear ducts betrayed me.

And from another:

I say bah humbug to everyone that thinks you are Scrooge.  I think you nailed it!  That West Jet promotion would have been better had those gifts gone to people that could not afford plane tickets!

And another:

I totally agree with you!!  Thanks for putting this out there.  You are not a Scrooge at all.


I've thought a lot about this over the weekend, and I don't think I was being an old fart or an old fogey or even being particularly pessimistic. I honestly do think that if Apple had given free computers to people shopping in an Apple Store, or if Amazon had given gift certificates to its top customers, I would've had much the same reaction.

That said, I wasn't particularly fair to West Jet … I judged its approach to charity without knowing its broader policies, and that was hardly generous of spirit.

In musing about this, I've concluded that my personality is a sort of odd mix of cynicism and optimism. After all, I'm a guy who has cried watching Love Actually and About Time, two of the least cynical movies ever made. On the other hand, I remain concerned about the possibility that the shining city on the hill may now be situated on a cliff that is increasingly impossible to scale, and I worry about the long-term implications of decreasing social mobility.

I'm not a guy who thinks that it is cool when Oprah gives away cars. I'm someone who gets annoyed at baseball games when kids scream at ballplayers to throw them a ball, as if they are entitled because, after all, their parents were wealthy enough to get seats where they actually can be that close to the field. I don't even like lottery tickets … I just have problems with a "something for nothing" culture.

Does this make me Scrooge? I don't think so.

Part of my goal on MNB is to sometimes make the generally unpopular argument … and I think I did that here.

Was it a fair argument to make? I continue to think so?

Could I have been more generous of spirit? Sure.

Should I have been more generous of spirit? Maybe.

Am I sorry I wrote what I wrote?


KC's View: