NEW DELTA ADS CAN'T STAY ALOFT; UNITED 'RISING' HINGES ON SERVICE

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Earlier this year, both United and Delta airlines dumped their agencies, and decades of advertising equity, like so many frozen lumps of lavatory effluent into the wild blue yonder. Now the successors have unveiled their long-awaited first efforts.

United's, from Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, is inspired and inspiring-in addition to being risky bordering on reckless. Delta, which had been the recipient of BBDO's worst creative work for many years, has gotten some very stylish-and thoroughly ridiculous-results from Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, New York.

The new Delta slogan is "On top of the world." The specific location would seem to be . . . um, heaven?

The first spots feature eerily barren fuselages; ethereal choral music; surreal, otherworldly super-slo-mo; and, in each, a single passenger, pampered in the extreme. See the woman, asleep on a tuft of feathers, fanned by handmaidens. See the man, dancing, dancing, slowly dancing to an orchestra all of his own. See the chefs in white lining the all-white hull of the plane . . .

Oh no! We're dead!

Oops, no, we're just on Delta trans-Atlantic business class where "We know how to treat you like an individual."

Yeah. Right.

The film, reminiscent of M&C Saatchi's British Airways work, is quite sumptuous. Also meaningless-because being called by your name while being told to stow your tray table is not exactly a feathered tuft. The best part is the 5 seconds in two of the spots about more legroom, better food and power supply for laptops. The rest, like the empty slogan, evaporates in thin air.

Not so United, which gives us the elegant, powerful theme "Rising."

Rising in the skies, rising to the challenge, rising-they hope-in our esteem.

Having determined that business travelers are fed up with the unfriendly skies, United tries to disarm us by pleading guilty on behalf of the whole industry, and vowing to change its ways. In one spot, we see (fake) vintage footage of the Wright Brothers' first flight, archly juxtaposed with an audio backdrop of a modern airport p.a., flight cancellations and all. "If Orville and Wilbur had to go through what you do just to fly," the voice-over says, "they would have stayed in the bicycle business."

Another talks about lousy food, and another-in which a United manager intentionally shows up late to a 6 a.m. employee training session to give everybody a taste of what passengers live with all the time-confronts delays and the maddening vacuum of information.

"Air travel needs to be easier, more professional, especially for the people who do it most," the voice-over says in one spot. "Now it will be, because, compared to the rest of the industry, United Airlines is headed in a different direction. United Airlines. Rising."

We shall see. The candor is, indeed, disarming, and the carrier's determination quite apparent. There is a compelling simplicity-even beauty-to the slo- gan, and it's easy to believe they mean it. Whether they can accomplish it is another matter altogether.

This is being portrayed as some sort of revolutionary concept ("Customer Satisfaction Philosophy," United has pretentiously dubbed it) but that's just consultantspeak for "service." It means being pleasant, helpful, attentive, honest. It means not shrugging off passengers' problems when they arise, but, as the employee trainer says in one of the spots: "Make it your responsibility to fix the problem."

It means, in effect, becoming Air Nordstrom.

But that also means not having seven vacant terminals at the ticket counter while customers are queued up 80 deep. It means not having to fly to Singapore to rate more than a bag of peanuts in coach. And it means not so beating down the unions on wages and benefits that they resent management and the customers both. Therein lies the greatest risk of the campaign.

In an industry driven, and riven, by ruthless cost-cutting, is not the profitable '90s way of doing business antithetical to CSP? Can United possibly deliver on these promises?

It's easy enough to identify problems. With clever advertising such as this, it's also easy to persuade viewers you're solving them, or en route to solving them. The trick-not on the airwaves but in the air-is to prove that you weren't lying. Every testy gate agent or ill-explained cancellation will turn "Rising" into an ugly joke that rebounds on United.

Maybe this is a new dawn, an uplifting departure.

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