UNITED SPOT FLIES DESPITE SOME POTENTIAL FOR DISASTER

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Imagine being an agency with an airline client that wants to announce how very much its employee owners care.

Ugh. None too envious a position. But now imagine being given total creative freedom, even to eschew the compulsory airline-ad images. That's right, no handsome and earnest captains. No smiling flight attendants fluffing little blue pillows and pinning wings on toddlers and generally not standing by the lavatories comparing next month's schedules.

Heck, this is blank sheet of paper. No airplanes.

A pretty good deal. So now imagine it yielding one Big Idea. Ready? Here's the premise: a whimsical vignette about abducting a little girl.

Get it? Extra level of service/kidnapped child.

OK, maybe it lacks the kooky audacity of, say, a slave auction in blackface. And maybe it doesn't boast the edgy reality you'd get by showing, oh, a live prostate exam. But in terms of unexpected creative solutions, it is undoubtedly a breakthrough idea.

Which somehow broke through.

From Leo Burnett USA, Chicago. For United Airlines. The most remarkable thing about the spot called "Chatterbox" is that the idea ever survived to the storyboard stage, but the result is .... not bad, actually. Yes, 60 not-bad seconds of a (slightly too) precious little girl chattering nonstop to a spaceship full of pudgy, three-eyed aliens, who are spiriting her away from Earth.

"This really is nice," she says to her initially fascinated captors, "but when I went with Mommy and Daddy to Florida to see my Gramma, we flew on an airplane that had hamburgers and milk and cookies .... and it was really, really fun. My daddy flies them alllllll the time. They're his favorite. He says they're different from the other ones because the people don't just work there; they own it .... Do you own this airplane, or do you just work here?"

And on and on. As she prattles away, the aliens get drowsier and drowsier, until, defeated, they turn around toward Earth and return the kid to her bedroom. Then the newly adjusted, ownership-specific tagline:

"Come fly our friendly skies."

OK, it's cute. Also quite clever. And, yes, it communicates the client's (dubious) claim that they care more because, as the print ads say, "We don't just work here." But just saying so and making it part of the corporate culture are not the same thing.

For that matter, who cares who cares the most as they all battle to deliver the least? In this post-recession, post-deregulation, post-profitability era of air travel, you can't even compare how sweetly competing carriers offer "Chicken or beef? Chicken or beef? Chicken? Chicken or beef?"-because nowadays meal service means salted peanuts on any haul shorter than Chicago-Singapore. (If you United employee owners want to demonstrate your commitment, try removing about five rows of your seats from your planes so that we can fly your friendly skies without our knees under our chins.)

Anyway, now that the promise of increased commitment has been broached, the airline had better be as advertised, because this claim cuts both ways. Customers who chance upon unfriendly skies may now take it as a personal affront from the proprietor. Or, put another way, United needs to put up or shut up, because talking, talking, talking is a little hard to take.

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