Airlines can’t seem to get brand advertising off the ground

It's funny how whole segments of the economy suddenly seem to jump on the advertising bandwagon, and just as quickly jump off again.
There'll be a flurry of oil company campaigns, and then a year later, silence.

It’s funny how whole segments of the economy suddenly seem to jump on the advertising bandwagon, and just as quickly jump off again.

There’ll be a flurry of oil company campaigns, and then a year later, silence. The life insurance industry comes at us in waves, too. And the car insurance people just will not shut up these days, at least in Toronto, where I can only assume they could save money if they simply bought their own car insurance radio station. But five years ago? Nada.

And who would have dreamed that the cruise business would bounce back after something like a 50-year decline into oblivion. My uncle was of that Noel Coward generation who thought crossing the Atlantic on The Queen Mary was sexy. He’d book a first-class cabin, pack a tux and a carton of Player’s, board at Montreal, sail to England, and sail right back again. Wouldn’t even get off the ship. He’d be perfectly in style today.

Which brings me to airlines. When I was a kid, believe it or not airlines were sexy! Even before the horror of 9/11, airline travel had become about as seductive as a midnight Greyhound bus trip to Cleveland.

There was once a brilliant Alaska Airline TV spot that spoofed the perceptual difference between First Class and Steerage. The camera started at the cockpit and panned down the aisle through First. Something akin to a Roman Orgy was in full swing. Fat businessmen with lipstick smears on their collars were swilling champagne from the bottle and frolicking with big-breasted stewardesses who popped ripe grapes into their slavering gobs.

Finally it reached the curtain into Tourist Class. It was like a Quonset Hut. Bare metal walls. No insulation. No lights. No seats. In the middle of the floor there was a little fire burning, and a ragged bunch of what looked like down-on-their-luck Albanian peasants huddled ’round it for warmth. The line was There’s only one class on Alaskan, and it’s not second.

Think about this next time you’re standing in line for your Even-Cheaper-Than-Thou Airlines flight while they check little old French Canadian ladies’ shoes for fertilizer bombs: Not so long ago, people bought airline tickets for the same reasons they now buy cruise line tickets. The promise of luxury. Ease. Class. Expensive booze. Five-course meals. Pampering.

I had the pleasure of making the Canadian campaigns for what was generally agreed to be The World’s Most Pampering Airline for the best part of 20 years, from the time they entered this market to the time they left.

Swissair had determined that with only six million Swiss on the planet, they had to be better than everyone else’s national airline to get market share as a worldwide airline. And that meant going ‘way up market.

Price was the last thing on the mind of anyone flying Swissair first cabin, trust me. One of the finest meals you could have anywhere was served over Greenland every afternoon aboard the Swissair flight from Zurich to Toronto. Guys who had paid nine grand for a ticket loaded up dinner plates with Beluga caviar the way my kids eat Marshmallow Blasted Froot Loops.

Before they quit the Toronto market in ’92 (the Swiss franc was four to a Canadian dollar in ’75, and at par with the Canadian dollar by ’92), Swissair worldwide hadn’t lost a dime since 1922, including the Second World War.

I was once at a cocktail party in Montreal with a guy who’d been worldwide marketing director of Swissair during World War II. He recalled ‘Vee flew our schedules visout interruption for zee first part of zee vor’ and then grew testy, saying ‘But zen,in zee second part, vee vood land at Berlin, AND ZEE ALLIES VOOD BOMB ZEE PLANES!!!’ He was still pissed at us for disrupting business during the unpleasantness with the Nazis.

So aside from pleading for government loan guarantees and bailouts, what are airlines doing today? Not much in the way of brand advertising, folks.

I see Alitalia is still perpetrating that Let’s get laid strategy which seems to lose so much in translation.

But our own Air Canada has come up with possibly the weirdest set of bus shelter boards you’ve ever seen.

In each, someone with what I can only call a homely face (and I’m being generous) is apparently meditating so fervently that, oh, a London double decker bus has popped right out of their brains and is now protruding from their skulls and out through the skin on their foreheads. The line is I’m so there. Of course, they might be really stoned as well. But if you or I were sitting next to one of these folks in tourist, I’ll bet we’d ask the flight attendant if there’s an empty seat somewhere down back. As Alfred E. Neuman used to say, Wha? Guess Air Canada feels luxury flight will wait a while longer for a comeback.

Barry Base creates advertising campaigns for a living. He writes this column to blow off steam, and as a thinly disguised lure to attract clients who may imagine working with him could be a productive and amusing experience. Barry can be reached at (416) 924-5533, or faxed at (416) 960-5255, at the Toronto office of Barry Base & Partners.