Road Warrior

WestJet's feel-good video rubs some the wrong way

A screen shot from WestJet promotional video.
Source: WestJet | YouTube

As promotional videos go, WestJet Airlines hit a grand slam.

In less than a week, a Christmas video posted on YouTube of arriving passengers being surprised with gifts has received more than 19 million views.

"We had no idea it would be this big," said Robert Palmer, WestJet's manager of public relations. "The number of viewers is way more than we expected."

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WestJet Airlines, based in Calgary, Canada, said the piece—the result of a summer brainstorming session—was designed to be fun and to convey the magic of Christmas and the spirit of giving.

But the company is now catching flak from some who say that showing people asking for and receiving presents sends the wrong message.

"Christmas is about giving," said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst with Hudson Crossing. "It might have been better to show what the passengers would have wanted to give someone else."

Promoting consumer greed?

There's no denying that the video has struck a chord. It pulls at the heartstrings and reminds us of childhood, when getting a certain gift is an overwhelming delight.

But Harteveldt sees it differently.

"My first reaction when I saw the video was—all this does is feed consumer greed," he said. "WestJet is a great corporate citizen, but I'm not sure this sends the right message."

But Palmer said, "We don't see this as promoting consumerism. That's not what it's intended to do."

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WestJet said the motivation was to have fun, which is why it doesn't include a tagline or sales pitch.

"This wasn't done as a PR stunt," Palmer said. "We didn't do it for marketing. People who say that don't know us very well."

But what about having a video of people telling Santa what they'd like to give to someone else? Or to a local charity?

This was not an effort to illustrate the airline's charitable giving, Palmer said, adding that WestJet donates more than 7,000 flights every year to help charities and their leaders travel for fundraising or other business.

"This video was simply about showing something fun and different during the holidays," he said.

350 gifts, but no husband

How did WestJet pull off the Christmas surprise?

On Nov. 21, passengers on two flights, between Toronto and Calgary, and from Hamilton, Ontario, to Calgary, were asked to check in by waving boarding passes in front of a giant box wrapped to look like a Christmas present.

When they did, the front of the package displayed a video screen with Santa Claus asking each person what he or she wanted for Christmas. Many laughed (the kids loved it) and eventually disclosed something on their wish list: a snowboard, socks and underwear, consumer electronic devices, a big screen TV—even a request for a husband.

Unbeknownst to the passengers, dozens of WestJet employees were given a list of the requests.

"We had 175 people working on this, and the wishes were relayed in real time to our people in Calgary," Palmer said.

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The WestJet crew scrambled to stores, bought the gifts, wrapped them and took them to the airport in Calgary. They had only four hours to accomplish everything.

When the passengers landed and went to the baggage carousel, instead of finding suitcases coming come down the ramp they saw dozens of wrapped packages, each marked for a particular person.

The video captures the surprise and emotion of the moment.

As for the woman who asked Santa for a husband, Palmer laughed and said, "We gave her a Ken doll."

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau. Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews.

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