United brings us together? So do funerals and prisons

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Marketer: United Airlines
Agency: Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis
Rating: Two stars

Here's what airlines do:

They load you into an airplane, which, if they are lucky and you are not, is overbooked. They take you, with your knees jammed against the tray table, from point A to point B. They serve you four fluid ounces of beverage and a bag of honey-coated peanuts, provided your route crosses the International Dateline.

The plane arrives, disgorging you and your fellow passengers as the cabin crew bids everyone adieu.

"Bye-bye. Bye-bye. B'bye. Bye. B'bye. Thank you, goodbye. B'bye. B'bye. B'bye."

Bags are sent to the luggage carousel, where your suitcase comes out last. You're ready to go. The airline's work is complete.

Then you meet people.

Perhaps you are a software salesman, seeking out an IT professional to screw on price. Perhaps you are home for Thanksgiving weekend, where, after 27 hours, you are ready to smother Mom with her pillow. Perhaps you are in the employ of Sheik Omar bin Laden. Whatever your business, meet people you do. And as Barbra Streisand more or less told us, people who meet people are the luckiest people in the world.

Of course, Barbra never gets a middle seat between heavyset asthmatics in front of a 2-year-old with an ear infection. But we stray from our point. Our point is that United Airlines' gentle and picturesque new campaign from Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, hinges on the claim that United brings people together.

"Why is it that no matter where you are in the world there is always a place for people to come together?" Liam Neeson intones in voice-over atop strains of "Rhapsody in Blue" and an exquisite urban-destination montage. "When you think about it, it's simple: humans are a social bunch. We need each other. That's why we fly more places than anyone else. Because it's important for people to stay . . . United."

Absolutely true, although American Airlines could say the same. Also Northwest. And Southwest. US Airways. Continental. Delta. Midwest Express. And every other airline in the world, including Aerosweet, which, as you know, brings people together in Ukraine.

Boasting about doing so is approximately like saying, "Fly us. Our aircraft have wings." At least when British Airways used an identical theme a decade ago, it was dramatizing its sheer volume of passengers. This Fallon work speaks only of togetherness--a classic GSP, Generic Selling Proposition.

Not only can all the air competition make the same claim, Trailways can make the same claim. The Staten Island Ferry can make the same claim.

Prison can make the same claim.

It's not unusual to see a generic brand statement vis-a-vis other players in a parity category. It's quite unusual to see one vis-a-vis virtually every other sphere of human experience, including funerals, war and New Orleans Saints home losses. What, pray, with the possible exception of the Milosevic opposition movement, doesn't bring people together?

The explanation, of course, is that United risks no backlash from "United," such as it had from "Rising." As we observed at the outset of that campaign, two years ago, it's risky to claim improved service when passengers are bound to experience the Hostile Skies and throw your slogan back in your face--as in, "Rising, my ass."

So, instead, Fallon heads for a comfortable cruising altitude, there to generate a smooth, warm, tender, emotional response to the beauty of air travel. And in that modest goal, this work succeeds. It is as lovely and poignant an expression of the obvious that you will ever see.

But if the strategy is to play the emotion card, why not at least play a proprietary emotion card? What about United's experience, its heritage, its people, its lore? Does this vast and venerable company, the world's largest air carrier, have nothing to say about itself apart from the preposterouslessly nonexclusive promise to fly passengers somewhere else where people are located?

Perhaps this helps explain what United stock isn't doing.


Copyright January 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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