One's first thought after seeing a new airline ad probably shouldn't be the image of one of the airline's jets crashing into a marshland shortly after takeoff. But after watching American Airlines' new spot that's exactly where this viewer's head was. For that, you can thank American's choice Jon Hamm, star of "Mad Men," to do the voice-over work for its "Change is in the Air" commercial, ushering in the company's first rebranding in 45 years.
It's not that Mr. Hamm's voice isn't perfect for commercial work. As we've seen for Mercedes-Benz, it is. It's just that there's certain baggage, at least for "Mad Men" fans -- and we're not talking about your Tumi luggage set.
American Airlines is central to the second season of the hit AMC drama, entering during the second episode, when Sterling Cooper staffers gather around a radio for news bulletins on the crash of Flight 1. A real-life tragedy, Flight 1 was a Los Angeles-bound 707 that plunged into Jamaica Bay a minute after takeoff at what we now know as John F. Kennedy International. The date was March 1, 1962. The entire crew and all 87 passengers perished, among them an international fly-fishing champion, an admiral, a Broadway actor, and the mother of Linda Eastman, future wife to Paul McCartney.
In the "Mad Men" universe, Andrew Campbell, father of Sterling Cooper account man extraordinaire Pete Campbell, was added to the manifest, setting in motion a brief-but-important story arc. Before he even has to gave a chance to cry, Pete is forced to overcome his grief at his father's death and, get this, use that grief in the agency's pursuit of the American Airlines account. Resistant at first, Pete relents and before you know it Sterling Cooper is working on concepts.
In the end, Sterling Cooper's contact at American gets fired, so no dice on the account, but along the way we see the agency work at trying to paper over the crash-related problems with American's image. They fret over stewardess recruitment ads and menus. Working at the office on Palm Sunday, Don chides his staff with one of his great, fierce Draperisms, "That crash happened to somebody else.... Let's pretend we know what 1963 looks like."
It's both great drama and grim business, and it raises a few questions about American's new campaign. Isn't it sort of strange that American would risk courting associations with an actual tragedy and the ugly fictional fallout on "Mad Men," depicted in the selling-out of one's emotions, backdoor scrambling for revenue and coarse corporate image doctoring? Granted, as a writer on the advertising business and a "Mad Men" recapper, I'm not your average consumer. But I can't be the only one out there making the connections, can I?