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$20 Million Campaign Focuses on Competitor's Legroom Cutbacks

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DETROIT ( -- United Airlines is taking a page from beer companies and packaged goods marketers and is calling out its main competitor, American Airlines.
United's print ads show a contorted American Airlines passenger.
Click to see large-size Chicago print ad.

Fallon, Minneapolis
United will break an estimated $15 million to $20 million national campaign March 21 to promote the leg room of its Economy Plus seating section. The campaign, from Publicis Groupe's Fallon, Minneapolis, will feature several TV, radio and outdoor ads. Print ads will appear in USA Today, Time magazine, Sports Illustrated, Forbes, Money, The Wall Street Journal and major newspapers in United hub cities such as Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles. TV and radio spots will continue to feature Rhapsody in Blue, the Gershwin song that United has used in its commercials since 1987. All print work will utilize the colorful illustrations that United debuted last year.

But the twist to this campaign is that starting in Chicago -- where the two airlines have hubs and are extremely competitive -- and later rolling out to other cities, United pokes fun at American Airlines by name. United is tweaking its rival in several print ads for abandoning its 4-year-old "More Room Throughout Coach" campaign. American last month said it would reconfigure the seating on its fleet to put more than 12,000 seats back into its jets, hoping the move will raise revenue by some $100 million a year.

'Handed us this opportunity'
"American handed us this opportunity on a silver platter," said Jerry Dow, United's vice president for marketing. "They made a big deal about seat comfort for their best customers, and then by reversing themselves it gave us a great opportunity and a great competitive advantage that we want to draw people's attention to in Chicago."

One of United's Chicago-specific print ads shows an illustration of a man bent into a cube. The caption reads, "Fly American, and you could kick yourself. Literally." Another ad shows a man sitting in a seat with his legs straight up in the air, trying to read a book. The caption on that one reads, "Tired of flying American?" The chatter under each caption points out that American is putting seats back in its planes, while United continues to offer extra leg room in its premium economy class, Economy Plus.

Additional guerilla marketing
Mr. Dow said the Chicago portion of the campaign will also include some unspecified guerilla marketing, and that the airline plans to utilize the approach in other cities depending on its success in Chicago.

"The 'gloves off' approach came from a sincere desire and need to stop the perception that American has more room on coach," he said. "They're putting seats back on their planes, and the soft glove approach did not seem to be as effective or as fast as simply pulling that aspect out and making people aware of that fact that we have a differentiated product."

Mr. Dow said American actually started the issue when its "More Room Throughout Coach" campaign began, pointing out that an ad said, "Your knees don't care who your hometown airline is" -- a reference, however unspecific, to United.

American is amused
American is aware of United's upcoming campaign and seemed amused by the whole thing. A spokesman, however, pointed out that the airline still has a "sizeable number of seats" in which the pitch (or leg room) is 33 inches, more than the industry standard of 31 inches. The spokesman said American has no plans for a counterattack.

"I suspect that we'll continue to focus on the aspects of our own business," the spokesman said.

While beer companies such as Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Co. have taken to calling each other out, this is somewhat comparable to how Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic often pokes fun at the perceived stodginess of British Airways.

"I have definitely seen those ads," Mr. Dow said, "but that wasn't in our thinking. Our thinking was to be more aggressive."

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