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PR fail or genius marketing? The Scandal of VietJet Air’s Scantily Clad Football Sponsorship

In recent months, Vietnam’s under-23 football team has made history by becoming the first South East Asian team to make it to the final of the Asian Confederation (AFC) U-23 Championship. Celebrated at both a local and global level, the team has become the pride of the nation with the players enjoying something akin to a heroic status.

It came as no surprise then that companies queued up for the chance to sponsor or directly fund the football team. After all, the association with a successful sports team offers brands increased exposure and visibility, and the opportunity to connect with the team’s fan base. But as one of the team’s sponsors, VietJet Air, found out, when it comes to sponsorship there’s more than meets the eye.

In the wake of the team making it to final on January 25th, VietJet not only promoted their budget-friendly flights to the final match in the host country China, but also actively engaged with the online fan community as part of their aircraft decoration campaign on Facebook. The campaign, which revolved around VietJet’s bid to let fans decide which players’ portraits should adorn the aircraft livery, generated considerable levels of social engagement and fuelled the operator’s ticket sales.

Social volume showing the rise in mentions during VietJet’s aircraft livery decoration campaign


Translation: 1. Luong Xuan Truong (midfielder), a dedicated & great leader. 2. Nguyen Quang Hai (midfielder), the player of big games. 3. Bui Tien Dung (goalie), defends the goal better than Spiderman. Overall I love all U23 Vietnam players!!!

Drawn in by the buzz around the cheap flights, football fans reached out to VietJet on Facebook to enquire about ticket prices and share their excitement. Although the number of ticket sales has not been made official, it’s safe to assume that VietJet witnessed a boom in their service to China in the days leading up to the final.


Translation: book 1 ticket for me right away! I’m so excited for U23!

Considering their strong social media campaign, you’d assume that the airline would focus on building their relationship with the football fans. But although this may have been the aim of VietJet Air’s next PR step – offering to fly the team back home regardless of the outcome of the final game – it was lambasted thanks to a series of faux pas.

For the special flight on 28th January, following Vietnam’s narrow loss to Uzbekistan earlier in the day, VietJet Air decided to reward the team for their silver medal by putting up a display of half-naked female flight attendants. Branded a ‘cheap stunt’, the indecent incident caused an outrage in Vietnam that spread beyond the realm of social media.

Bikini on board: The U-23 football team was treated to a bikini show on the return flight.

While VietJet had had their bikini shows slated in the past, this time the public was less willing to forgive and forget. The under-23 football team are widely hailed as champions and fans felt that VietJet’s ill-judged marketing ploy had tarnished their image. Many took to Facebook to express their frustration, thereby obliterating news of the brand’s good deeds from not even a week earlier.

The spikes in the mentions of VietJet on social media reflect the public’s reaction to the bikini scandal. 
Translation: Vietjet has had so many scandals this year but everyone forgave them. However, the way they treated U23 shows a deteriorating corporation, using brainless women to advertise for the brand. Vietjet, you’re tarnishing the beautiful & prideful Vietnam country and insulting millions of Vietnamese who have to see these pictures…

To make matters worse, VietJet’s CEO issued an apology on the company’s Facebook page, claiming that the incident was “a spontaneous decision and outside of the operation’s control due to complications in procedures”. Her refusal to own up further enraged fans on social media, with many bidding never to use the airline again. The heavy traffic to VietJet’s Facebook page even prompted the company to shut it down for several days in a vain attempt to weather the storm.

VietJet’s apology on Facebook triggered strong reactions.
Translation: Too late! Don’t try to explain yourself anymore. Vietjet has destroyed the prideful image of the returning U23 Vietnam team, stepped on the pride of millions of Vietnamese…Farewell Vietjet. I’ll never fly with you again.
Translation: Exactly, let’s boycott this airline. Too crass!
Translation: Enough already, what kind of an apology is this??? What do you mean by “spontaneous”??? Spontaneously find these skimpy women in China with -0°C temperature? Illogical and absurd explanation. Sorry but I won’t accept it, from now on I will fly with Vietnam airlines even if they’re a bit more expensive, never Vietjet again. Absurdity from high to low management, bringing shame to Vietnam!

So what impact did the scandal have on VietJet? From a corporate perspective, their stock prices took a hit and decreased by five percent. Analysts have put the remarkable drop down to the turmoil surrounding the event since it happened amidst the widespread celebrations of the team’s performance, which should in fact have seen the stock price rise. The brand also received a red card in the form of a $1,000 fine for offending Vietnamese culture.

But, considering the awareness boost the airline has enjoyed following the event, that might well have been a price worth paying. Perhaps it is as simple as bad news is better than no news. After all, the operator is now widely known as Bikini Airlines, even among consumers who previously had never heard of VietJet Air.