SINGAPORE — She is Asian, wears a figure-hugging uniform, smiles gently, and looks nowhere near her 35 years. Now the Singapore Girl, an airline industry icon, may be about to get a more contemporary look.
In one of the world's longest running advertising campaigns, Singapore Airlines' flight attendants have become instantly recognizable corporate symbols and are the focus of the Southeast Asian carrier's advertising.
But the advertising firm that created the campaign and the slogan "Singapore Girl — You're a great way to fly", now faces the risk of losing the lucrative deal.
This month, Singapore Air invited rivals of Batey Ads, which has held the contract since the airline was formed in 1972, to also submit bids and the outcome could change the Singapore Girl.
Despite her success, critics complain the Singapore Girl concept is sexist, outmoded and largely intended to serve male passengers' fantasies of desirable, subservient Oriental women.
The Straits Times once quoted a Qantas Airways chairman referring to the campaign as "massage parlor in the sky ads".
Richard Pinkham of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation in Singapore said that while the girl image may be outdated, much of the airline's cachet is a result of its cabin crew.
"It's possible that they will de-emphasize the name — it is a bit passe to refer to professional women as 'girls' — but maintain the flight attendant image as a central point of focus in their advertising. It certainly does capture attention more than a photo of a chair would."
Recent adverts for Singapore Air feature the airline's ultra-modern aircraft, updated seats or in-flight food. But the perfectly groomed Singapore Girl still features prominently, gently covering a sleeping passenger or offering meals.
Former flight attendants reject the sexism charge and many take pride in a profession that lost much of its glamour since air travel became an everyday phenomenon.
An ex-Singapore Girl who asked to be identified only as Nancy said the airline should hold on to the campaign and not "put their crew into dull business suits".
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"When I put on the uniform, I represented Singapore, not just the airline. It made me so proud and we would get a lot of positive feedback," she said.
Nine out of ten of the female cabin crew are Singaporean or Malaysian, while the remainder are hired from China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea and Taiwan for language skills.
They follow strict rules, down to the way they wear long hair — never loose — and the color of nail varnish or lipstick.
Ironically, the Southeast Asian airline relied on white European men — advertising mastermind Ian Batey and French designer Pierre Balmain — to come up with the idea of the graceful Asian girl in a batik uniform, known as sarong kebaya.
The bidding for what is one of the most coveted advertising deals in the industry will be a tough race, particularly in the light of Singapore Air's known focus on costs.
Advertising industry experts do not expect her to be canned but merely refreshed.
"It's been incredibly successful and you don't just give up such a truly iconic symbol having spent 30 years to build it," one executive at a large international agency said.
A spokesman for the airline denied that the review of its ad agency could necessarily put an end to the Singapore Girl.
"There's no intention to change what is a recognized representation of our brand internationally. The custodian of our brand is us, the airline, not any ad agency."
Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.