Why wasn’t “Spiders in my Dessert” the next “United Breaks Guitars”?

American Airlines wants to know, because it believes “Spiders in my Dessert” could have been a public relations disaster of United Breaks Guitars proportions. (The arachnid, which allegedly lived inside the chocolate cake, makes an appearance at about 0:15. Delicious!)

In a presentation delivered at a recent airline conference, the airline claims quick actions by its communications team averted a PR problem when “Spiders” was posted this summer.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Global Rescue -- Global Rescue is the world’s leading provider of medical, security, evacuation and travel risk management services. Founded in 2004, Global Rescue has exclusive relationships with the Johns Hopkins Emergency Medicine Division of Special Operations and Elite Medical Group. Global Rescue provides best-in-class services that identify, monitor and respond to client medical and security crises. Learn more about Global Rescue.

The video was accompanied by the following narrative:

this vid clearly shows the a spide[r] crawling around in my wife’s dessert which we were served yesterday (july 8, 2009). and no, it didnt just fall in there. when we first looked at it there was a web between the cake and the side of the plate it was on. it was its home. yum.

So why didn’t this gross-out video take off? First — and to its credit — the airline responded to the post with a brief and conciliatory note:

American and its food service providers make every effort to ensure that our food is safe for all our customers, so we are concerned by what appears in your video.

It’s an unfortunate situation, so feel free to reach out to us to let us know what happened so we can work to address it.

If possible, could you please provide us with your names, the departure and arrival cities, and the flight number/date? This would help us greatly to determine what/where this happened and how we can follow‐up with you.

While we work to rectify the situation, we would kindly ask that you consider taking this video down from your channel.

Thanks very much for your time,

Christopher Vary, American Airlines

As it turns out, American didn’t have to worry about “Spiders in my Dessert.” Here’s why, according to the presentation:


American believes its fast actions saved the day, in contrast with United’s reaction to the guitar video, which, it points out earlier in the presentation, United was slow to respond to.

The airline also got lucky. The aggrieved passenger used “bad tags” and couldn’t even spell the word “spider.”

Tim Smith, who works in American’s corporate communications department, and who delivered the presentation, adds some context:

This was part of a presentation I gave at the Airports Council International’s North American convention.

We quickly spotted this posting with our usual monitoring efforts. Since there were a number of unanswered questions as to exactly how this occurred (the video was of marginal quality), we messaged the person who posted it and asked him to contact us to discuss the situation further. The text of that initial message is on the slide.

The customer seemed impressed that we had reached out for him soon after his posting and the matter was quickly resolved long before it became something larger (though I don’t think anyone would say it was as “compelling” as the United guitar incident, which showed how quickly it grew to major proportions without any airline feedback in the early days of it).

Since this happened many months ago, I don’t think we would have a lot more to say about this.

But should American Airlines’ PR team be patting itself on the back for this?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Let’s be honest, here. Spiders in my cake isn’t as interesting as United Breaks Guitars — not by a long shot. Now, if the spider was a Tarantula and the passenger had added a soundtrack and some basic production values, then maybe there would have been more than the 127 views it currently has.

Also, American didn’t succeed in removing the video. Which means any blogger could pick up a story like this a few months later and cause a scene. Incidentally, I’m not referring to myself, here. I wouldn’t have gone near this video unless someone had sent me the presentation, in which American claims total social media victory.

My point is, it shouldn’t. It won one battle with the help of a sub-standard video and sloppy coding. But memories are long online, and it hasn’t won the war.

United doesn’t have to worry about any more PR damage from the guitar video. It has been more than responsive over the long term to this challenge.

But American still should have case of arachnophobia. Because this video could be online for a long, long time.

Update: On second thought, what could make this story more compelling? If this arachnid could sing, then we’d have a viral video …