In the battle to curb bad behavior on planes, the Federal Aviation Administration has turned to a modern-day media tool: memes.
As part of a public information campaign warning travelers about the penalties for fighting on planes, assaulting flight attendants or refusing to follow flight-crew instructions, the agency has crafted its own somewhat irreverent messages to drive the message home on social media.
“This leadership that we have really encouraged us to think outside of what we have normally done,” said Kristina Harris, a communications strategist. “Our team is really energetic and innovative, but we’ve never . . . gone from the regulatory serious government agency to sharing a meme on our official accounts.”
In one, a scolding granny with a flight deck behind her holds a raised finger in the universal sign for “You’re in trouble now, buster.” The message: “Don’t embarrass me! I raised you better than to act that way.”
Another features a bright-green pickup truck with a red bow on top and the lament: “You could have spent $35,000 on a brand new truck. But instead you are paying a fine because you punched a flight attendant.” Others invoke the movie “Fight Club” or the common threat to turn a vehicle around.
The memes, as well as a video featuring children talking about adults who act up on planes, were the product of brainstorming sessions among FAA communications teams after agency higher-ups asked for ideas on ways to create a message that might resonate.
“We were just struggling with the fact that warning people about the safety risks wasn’t working,” said Lauren Hyland, a project manager who coordinates digital communications. “Threatening them with fines and jail time isn’t working. Like how do we get people to listen? We were like: ‘Shame? Guilt? Laughter? What do we do? Let’s throw everything out there and see what works.’”
The first meme - the truck one - rolled out at the end of June in preparation for the July 4 travel rush. At the time, the agency said it had received about 3,201 reports of unruly passenger behavior since the beginning of the year, identified 491 cases with potential violations and started action in 61 cases since the beginning of the year.
In its most recent Twitter update on Aug. 3, the agency said the number of unruly passenger reports had reached 3,715, with 628 investigations launched and 99 cases with penalties. The vast majority of cases are tied to passengers’ refusal to wear a mask.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson announced a new “zero tolerance policy” against disruptive behavior in the air on Jan. 13, saying that it would not issue warnings or counseling as it had in the past but rather go straight to enforcement. The agency had proposed more than $682,000 in fines as of last month.
But as The Washington Post reported, the process for dealing with lawbreaking airline passengers can be prolonged and complicated, and the FAA had completely closed only seven cases by mid-July.
In addition to announcing (and extending) the stricter new policy, the FAA last week asked airports to show its public service announcement and urge restaurants and bars not to offer “to-go” alcohol to passengers. Alcohol is a frequent contributor to bad behavior on planes, Dickson wrote in a letter to airports.
On the meme front, Hyland said the team still has a lot of ideas in the works.
“We don’t want to saturate the market in such a way that it’s not making an impact,” she said. “So we’re kind of keeping a few things in our back pocket.”
Given the status of the FAA as a federal agency, social media staffers can’t just dream up an idea and tweet it out. Memes have to get approved all the way up a ladder that includes the agency administrator and the office of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, according to the FAA.
“Generally speaking, we have a lot of autonomy and we know what lines not to cross,” Hyland said. “But for something like this where it’s going to be having a very wide reach, we definitely wanted to make sure that we weren’t making anybody uncomfortable with our stance and our tactics.”
The internal feedback from higher-ups, she said, has been good - she said she has even heard that there has been “cracking up” in response to some messages.
“You imagine them to be, like, buttoned up and really concerned, and to just hear that they’re willing to go on this ride with us and to trust us is a really good feeling,” she said.
Emma Duncan, a 22-year-old public affairs specialist who was part of the “Kids Talk” video brainstorming group, said the effort has gotten praise from airline groups and flight attendants.
“They’re great!” Taylor Garland, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said in an email. “People engage with them and share across platforms - meaning more people get the message to act right on planes or face fines or jail time.”
Comments on the social media posts run the gamut of responses, from opposition to the federal mask mandate to complaints about flight attendant behavior to criticism of the FAA for using the same meme too many times. More than one person has suggested that $35,000 is not a reasonable price for a pickup truck.
Still, there are some fans.
“Who ever runs this page I need you for promoting my brand,” one person wrote on Instagram. “Lol.”
“I love it FAA!” another user wrote. “You guys need more memes.....the comment section becomes true entertainment!”
Harris, whose 9-year-old son Benjamin appeared with other kids of FAA staffers in the video, said the group expected some negative feedback.
“You know putting something out like this, you have to have the expectation that you’re going to have trolls,” she said. “You’re going to have people that are going to criticize you no matter what you put out there.”
Rebecca Ortiz, an assistant professor at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications who researches and teaches about memes, said the format can be a risky way to get the word out for any brand, much less a government body. Does the message reach those who really need to hear it? Will it be persuasive?
Successful memes get shared and evolve with new iterations from users - think the image of Bernie Sanders in his mittens on Inauguration Day, Ortiz said. Does a federal agency really want that to happen to their work?
“When the original creator of this is such an authority, it can come off as cringe-y, maybe trying too hard,” she said. “The coolest thing you can do is not try to be cool.”
Still, Ortiz said, the FAA came up with clever examples that do a good job of using cultural references.
“They actually did a pretty solid job in creating what I would really call memes,” she said - especially considering the bureaucracy involved.
“You have to run this up the ladder; you have to make sure that everybody who might have to answer for this is comfortable with what they’re putting out,” she said. “Usually that’s where creativity gets stifled.”
Though Ortiz wasn’t aware of much meme work from federal agencies, she said such authorities have used public service announcements since at least the early 1900s.
“This is kind of the modern version of a PSA for a federal agency,” she said.