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The "friendly skies" are out and empathy for the weary business traveler is in as United Airlines gets ready to launch its new domestic advertising and marketing campaign.

Those who have been given a sneak preview of the approximately $70 million campaign-the first since United parent UAL Corp. ended its 31-year relationship with Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, and shifted the U.S. account to Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis-said it acknowledges the hassles of flying and commiserates with business travelers.

Advertising breaks May 22.


The new ads-none of which show a United plane-also promote a bevy of improvements, including tastier food. The tagline "Rising," slotted directly below the United logo, asserts that United is "rising to the challenge" of meeting the needs of its customers (AA, April 14).

A hip version of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," United's musical signature, plays in the background of many of the ads.

A sampling of three of the commercials:

nOne shows a group of United employees waiting anxiously in the boarding area for a 6 o'clock flight to depart. Nothing is said as the clock-registering 6:25-ticks on. Eventually, a manager emerges and sighs, "Now you know how our customers feel."

nAnother opens with a '50s-era mother using the flying-airplane method to spoon-feed her finicky baby. Imitating the sound of propellers as she glides a spoonful of food around the baby's head, she finally coerces the tight-lipped child to open wide for the airplane. A voice-over queries, "How long has it been since you've enjoyed airline food?"

The baby then defiantly spits out the food, and the voice-over informs viewers that "Silver Palate" cookbook author Sheila Lukins has prepared recipes and menus for United's flights-"for coach, too."

nA third spot, which ad industry sources describe as "artistic," exaggerates the hardships of traveling using images of Orville and Wilbur Wright and throngs of people anticipating a ride on their flying contraption. After two announcements of the flight's delay and manual attempts to start the engines, the flight is canceled. People leave en masse and several men haul the plane away with a rope.

'evangelists' called

Fallon and United executives are sharing only portions of the campaign with senior management and select groups of employee "evangelists," who are expected to spread the word to other employees, according to an insider.

stressing that the employee-owned airline empathizes with customers' frustration with flying-target business-class passengers. Though these travelers constituted a mere 9% of the carrier's passengers last year, they contributed 44% of its $16.4 billion in 1996 revenues.

"This is a very candid, non-airline advertising campaign," said a United spokesman, who won't disclose details. "They're bold, but there's nothing outlandish about them."

The carrier spent $1.5 million to research what passengers think about traveling, he said, and "that's going to be reflected in the ads."

TV ads break during coverage of the National Basketball Association playoffs; print ads will run in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today starting next week.

Y&R Advertising, New York, which holds the $50 million international part of United's account, will use the "Rising" theme line too. Print breaks this month, and international TV begins in September.

Ms. Waters is an associate editor at Crain's Chicago Business. Contributing: Pat

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