'Sex Sells Seats': Magazine Airline Ads, 1959–79

From kimono-clad Japanese hostesses to miniskirted Swiss brunettes, companies have a long history of using women to sell air travel. Some examples from The Atlantic's archives.

These days, air travel is anything but sexy. TSA pat-downs, inflatable neck pillows, reruns of CBS sitcoms—it can get pretty grim at 35,000 feet.

There was a time, however, when flying was both the literal and figurative height of sexiness. “The good old days,” Mark Gerchick calls them wryly in the January/February Atlantic. “When travelers were ‘mad men’ and flight attendants were ‘sexy stews,’ when the ‘sex sells seats’ mantra drove some carriers to adorn ‘trolley dollies’ in hot pants and go-go boots.”

While air travel ads printed in The Atlantic in those days were a little more… buttoned up (than, say, this 1972 Southwest Airlines commercial), it’s clear the “sexy skies” gimmick was an advertising boon. The campaigns were wildly misogynistic, hopelessly fantastical, and maybe a little bit racist. But sell seats they did, from Narita to O’Hare. Gathered below are 10 such “sex sells seats” ads plucked from The Atlantic archives. (Click any ad to view a larger version.)


February 1968

British Overseas Airways Corporation “takes good care of you.” (By putting gyrating hula dancers front and center.)


February 1959

KLM: The premiere airline for tag-along wives and their crestfallen husbands.


May 1961

Japan Air Lines masters the art of marketing orientalism, ensuring flyers that the only “real desire” of its “kimono-clad stewardesses” is “to serve.”


July 1970

This Iberia Airlines ad bravely defies ethnic stereotypes by promising travelers a veritable rainbow of stewardess hair colorings: “blondes from Barcelona, redheads from Cádiz,” and for the traditional Hispanophile, “a liberal helping of the beautiful brunettes you pictured us having.”


October 1966

Swissair promises “lakeside cafes, casinos, nightclubs,” and—most prominently of all—“friendly natives.”


July 1971

This Japan Air Lines ad delivers a particularly cringe-worthy line: “She is our pride. And your joy.”


August 1966

Not looking for love? Never fly Alitalia.


February 1979

South African Airways offers one for the ladies: When Alec hits on you, he’s not being polite. “Merely sincere.”


February 1959

Japan Air Lines does it again, demonstrating just how well-versed its “fairest” of the fair stewardesses are in the womanly arts.


November 1970

Kris from Delta is “resourceful, alert, efficient, confident, and sociable.” But, most important, PRETTY.

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