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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, October 19, 2001

United addresses terror attacks in new ads

By Brad Foss
Associated Press

NEW YORK — In its first TV advertisements since Sept. 11, United Airlines speaks openly with viewers about last month's terrorist attacks, a strategy that is receiving mixed reviews from marketing experts.

While some experts said ignoring the events of Sept. 11 would be wrong, others argued that United — only the second major carrier to launch a TV ad campaign since the attacks — needn't remind air travelers of an event the industry should hope they just as soon forget.

"We took a blow, but we're gonna get up," pilot Ted McCaan says while straightening his necktie in one minute-long spot called "Family." McCaan's message sums up the theme of renewal instilled throughout the campaign, which shows documentary style interviews with United employees and began airing nationwide Tuesday.

In another spot, titled "Passion," workers talk about the thrill of flying and the "freedom" to travel anywhere, anytime in the United States: "We're not gonna let anyone take that away from us," a male pilot says. "We're Americans, and this is not gonna beat us down," a female executive adds.

United's advertising agency, Fallon Worldwide of Minneapolis, originally asked United employees to read scripts that emphasized camaraderie, a passion for flying and confidence in the company.

"Once we started filming, though, it became apparent that what they had to say from their heart was much better than what I had written for them," said Bob Moore, Fallon's creative director. So Moore scrapped the script and instead interviewed 32 workers, a move he said lent the tightly edited, documentary-style production the "appropriate tone."

"There wasn't really an interview in which the crew didn't erupt in applause afterward. They were all pretty inspiring," he said.

Gary Stible, an executive at The New England Consulting Group, a Westport, Conn.-based advertising agency, said the United campaign has some nice touches, but he was critical of the approach for "reminding people of what they wanted them to forget. It was a brilliant execution of the wrong strategy."

But Stephen A. Greyser, a professor of consumer marketing at Harvard Business School, disagreed.

"Normally, an airline wouldn't want to be out there advertising after a major accident," Greyser said. "But in this instance, the impact of Sept. 11 is so massive in terms of the traveling public's minds, you can't hide."

Jerry Dow, United's director of worldwide marketing, said the trio of ads attempt to strike a balance between heartfelt expressions of confidence about the airline and subtle encouragement to fly.

"Our customers want us out there talking to them, but they don't want the hard sell just yet," Dow said.

Airline passenger volumes plummeted after the terror attacks in New York and Washington as jittery business and leisure passengers opted to travel by train, car or not at all. While air traffic has slowly picked up, many jets are flying about 40 percent empty even after carriers cut nationwide carrying capacity by 20 percent, according to the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group in Washington.

The industry is expected to report more than $6.5 billion in losses for the year and Wall Street analysts estimate carriers are losing tens of millions of dollars with each passing day. Wooing Americans back to the skies has become the top priority for the industry after security.

While major carriers have announced significant discounts for business travelers, smaller fare cuts for leisure travelers and special offers for frequent flyers, the majority of those deals appeared in print and electronic media only.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines aired a series of patriotic TV ads just one week after the attacks. In one, company president Colleen Barrett intones: "Nothing will keep our country or our company from moving ahead."

American Trans Air of Indianapolis announced at least two fare sales in TV ads that aired in Chicago and Indianapolis, but neither made any allusions to Sept. 11.

United's two largest competitors, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, have not developed any plans for new TV advertisements since Sept. 11, the companies said Wednesday.