United Airlines Goes Too Far

Garfield's Ad Review: Lush Animation Won't Make Anyone Rhapsodize About Flying

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When there is a notable air disaster, by terms of the airlines' media contracts, airline advertising typically goes dark. This is for obvious reasons. No marketer wants to spend money reminding the audience of, for example, sudden fiery death.

There is a valuable lesson in that.

At certain moments, advertising -- no matter how cunningly crafted -- is incapable of sending its intended message. At certain moments, it is capable only of triggering associations with the larger story in the public mind. That's one reason you haven't seen a lot of bank commercials lately offering fast, convenient refinancing. It's why John McCain will come nowhere near his Republican colleague Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens in the next three months. It's why Barry Bonds' endorsement career has dried up.

And it's why, when appearing in public, it's always wise to make sure your fly is zipped. You want your audience focusing on what you want your audience focusing on.

This brings us to the new commercial for United Airlines, the latest in a series of lovely, lushly animated spots that have been airing heavily during the Olympics. Like the others, it's gorgeous, a quirky symphony of sea life in which a lobster conductor leads whales and sailfish, rays and tortoises, octopuses and mussels in a rousing orchestration of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

Of course, because it's "Rhapsody in Blue," and because it's extravagant animation, we immediately understand that it's a United ad. You need to get to the end to find out why a latter-day "Merrie Melodies" cartoon has anything to do with air travel. But then, aha. We see the shadow of a United wide-body scudding over the ocean's surface.

"Crossing the ocean will never be the same," the voice-over says. "United's new international first and business class. United. It's time to fly."

Oh, is it really? While we may like to believe a voice-over would never lie -- especially when the voice belongs to Robert Redford -- we're pretty sure from everything else we've read and experienced over the past year that this is pretty much the time not to fly, if at all possible.

High fares and surcharges. Shrunken schedules. Surly, mistreated employees. Reduced services. No pillows. Pay-as-you-go food. Fees for changes. Fees for bags. Fees for child escorts. Lost luggage. Long waits, and petty humiliations, at security. It's a long list. And just as the Olympics were getting under way, United added to it. Its domestic business class, on some routes, will lose food service. Domestic coach will lose pretzels and nuts.

Next: seats, tray tables, rudders, flaps and other expensive frills.

Now obviously this ad promotes premium service, where passengers are substantially insulated from the indignities endured by the hoi polloi. But so what? The Olympics cast a wide net. The vast majority of those who see this ad, once they get finished oohing and aahing over the adorable halibut, will be freshly reminded of how flat beds and symphonic splendor have nothing to do with their air-travel experience. What they will be reminded of is their most recent nightmare and the ongoing air disaster that is contemporary, unfriendly-skies reality.

Yes, at this particular moment, even "Merrie Melodies" are unbearably dissonant and utterly counterproductive. Pretty animation or no pretty animation, this would have been a good time for United to keep its "It's Time to Fly" zipped.

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