The Not-So-Perfect Getaway: How Travel Ads Use Irony to Market Majestic Destinations

Say you’ve just survived a global pandemic. You’re vaccinated, and the only virus you have is the travel bug. Now all you need is a ticket—but where to, exactly?  

A pent-up public is craving adventure—but nothing too wild. After all, who wants yet another rollercoaster after the last 18 months? Instead, people want a fantasy vacation, but with COVID-19 not quite in the rearview, many are skeptical of anything that seems too good to be true—or at least, that’s what advertisers seem to be betting on. 

A new travel ad—a short film, really—featuring a cynical Robert De Niro being courted by Swiss tennis titan Roger Federer lures travelers to Switzerland with a counterintuitive approach: it pans its own destination. Here’s how De Niro and Federer, who was recently named a brand ambassador for Switzerland Tourism, use a bit of cynicism to sell the perfect vacation. 

Cynicism as a selling point 

The short film opens with a meta concept: Federer is calling De Niro and asking if he watched the trailer for his Switzerland commercial. What does the Academy-award winner think? Is he game to star? 

De Niro is nonplussed. Switzerland is just “too perfect” and there’s “no drama” there, insists the A-list actor, whose wry humor and jaundiced look at the alpine utopia provide a great comedic foil for Federer’s sincere enthusiasm.

While they volley lines back and forth, viewers are treated to breathtaking vistas of the Swiss Alps (Federer and De Niro are easy on the eyes, too). The Matterhorn nearly steals the scene from the stars. The juxtaposition is laughable—and very relatable for a target audience that, presumably, includes workaholics who thrive on the chaos and fast-pace of cosmopolitan life and can afford a Swiss getaway. The film ends with a firm rejection from De Niro, and the tagline at the very end has our number: “When you need a vacation without drama. You need Switzerland.” 

The short film succeeds in making the audience feel seen. De Niro and Federer are not selling a place. They’re selling the escapism and sense of peace that so many people are longing for—and they sell it by acknowledging our skepticism. It is this irony that makes a Swiss getaway feel both relatable and aspirational. 

The star power takes the concept of glossy, perfect, and majestic travel ads and flips it on its head. We still get the travelogue views without the corny slogans or staged images of beautiful couples sipping ale in the Alps. It’s authentic—and highly effective. 

Travel ads with personality 

This pivot toward irony in travel ads began well before the pandemic. A 2018 short film for New Zealand Tourism features the comic Rhys Darby calling on none other than New Zealand’s actual Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, to help solve the “great conspiracy” of why New Zealand keeps getting left off world maps. (As such an isolated country, it does, regrettably, get cut quite regularly.) 

Turning their erasure into a claim to fame is a rather brilliant move for the Kiwis. They manage to come across as self-aware and self-deprecating—and with Rhys touting the tourist appeal of better-known destinations, it becomes apparent that New Zealand has much of what Spain, France and other popular tourist destinations have combined. And of course, getting the poised and popular Prime Minister on board makes the country feel accessible and welcoming. 

The ad, in short, manages to bridge the divide between foreign and familiar, successfully positioning New Zealand as a place for folks who want to go a bit off the beaten track without actually going out of their comfort zone. It’s a simple act of showing not telling that appeals to the traveler who doesn’t like to be a tourist.  

Travel ads dripping with authenticity and adventure

The same tactic was used on a billboard just outside the Helsinki Airport back in 2016, as first reported in CondeNast Traveler: “Nobody in their right mind would come to Helsinki in November. Except you, you badass. Welcome.”

This cheeky affirmation of adventure is a wink-wink to the intrepid traveler willing to brave single-digit temperatures. It speaks directly to travelers who pick destinations not in spite of bitter cold or rough conditions—but precisely because of them. 

Located near the airport, the advertisement speaks to someone who has already made the choice to come to Helsinki—practically urging them to brag about their badassery to others. After all, the only thing better than keeping a well-kept travel secret is sharing it.

Want sellar copy so awe-inspiring you’ll write home about it? Our ‘Smiths can help. 

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