AD MAKES BATTERED AIRLINE SEEM SOULFUL

United's 'Interview' Spot Is Storytelling Gem

By Published on .

Client: United Airlines
Agency: Fallon, Minneapolis
Star Rating: 3.5

There were a lot of film clips shown during the Academy Awards telecast. How strange that the most charming one was a commercial.

Animation technique captures a poignant moment.

It was for United Airlines, from Fallon, Minneapolis, and utterly irresistible, a dramatic and endearing introduction to the airline's new "It's Time to Fly" campaign.

It's really not a spot
The spot is called "Interview," though to call it a spot is almost a disservice. It's really a short film, by Oscar-nominated animators Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, about a young job candidate who flies to an out-of-town interview. Maybe it's a little thin on plot -- he meets, he impresses, he leaves, he answers his cellphone, he celebrates -- but without a word of dialogue it is nonetheless a story fetchingly told.

The animation is done rotoscope style -- i.e., live action traced over frame by frame. Here the animators opted mainly for the less literal, more stylized image, with but a few moments of more intense photo-reality. The most lifelike, though, is also the most poignant. The interviewee has put on his Sunday best for the trip, only to discover at his destination that he has dressed in one black shoe, one brown.

A sweet, human moment
Once again, that's not exactly like Tennessee Williams material, but take our word for it, it's a sweet, human moment. Not bad from a line drawing, and not to mention the lovely, inspiring, understated piano rendition of the United jingle (or, as it is sometimes called, George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue.") This is the Leo Burnett USA's legacy to United. It may or may not be a crime against Gershwin, but it is a true gift to this beleaguered airline, which for all its troubles suddenly seems spirited and soulful and very much alive as soon as the sound track kicks in.

Then, of course, there is the message: Meeting face to face makes all the difference in business.

At first glance, the notion would seem to confer no particular advantage on United; it's a category benefit. But if rising air currents lift all airships, United, through sheer size, will benefit more than most.

There is also at least some proprietary equity in the concept, accumulated a decade ago in another recession-era United spot by Burnett. There a boss handed out air tickets to his entire sales force, telling them to get reacquainted with their customers.

Very stylish, for Chapter 11
At least as important, though, is the surpassing stylishness of the ads. United, in the throes of Chapter 11, doesn't have a whole lot going for it. Recession and terror have cut into their passenger loads. Fuel costs are soaring. Their labor contracts doom them to be forever uncompetitive with discount carriers.

It isn't pretty. But they still have a lot of planes, a lot of MileagePlus customers and a lot of history. If those economic air currents are indeed on the rise, at least in competition with American and Delta, infrastructure plus style would give them one up on the other big, cost-crippled carriers.

Three subsequent spots from other award-winning filmmakers aim to achieve precisely that. United may or may not still qualify as the Friendly Skies, but for the moment at least it's the most elegantly advertised.

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