The spot: An animated woman (by animated, I don't mean excited—I mean that she's drawn in pencil) has a great idea. We know this because there's a light bulb floating above her head. The woman travels far and wide to evangelize for her idea (causing light bulbs to appear above the heads of those she converts). Wherever she goes, she flies on United Airlines. In related spots (also animated), a man flies United to attend a job interview (he gets the job), and another man flies United to bring a rose to his far-off mom (she's pleased). (Click here to see the ads.)
I was not—initially—a huge fan of these spots. First, why would anyone actually travel to spread a great idea? Couldn't you spread it much faster with the aid of modern telecommunications? Yes, I can see the value of a one-on-one pitch session. But the light bulb lady's idea is shown spreading like wildfire. I'm quite certain e-mail would be better for this.
And the guy flying out to the job interview: If he's looking for work, wouldn't he just want the cheapest flight available? He wouldn't pick United unless it offered the best deal. But these ads don't say boo about low fares. Nor, for that matter, do they speak of generous leg room, quicker check-in times, or friendlier service. In fact, they never explain at all why flying United would be better than flying Delta. (Or even taking Amtrak.)
But after I thought on it some more, I started to like the campaign.
For one, it's gorgeous. In terms of sheer visual splendor, no other ad out now comes close. Each spot was made by a different animator (or animators), and each animator has either won or been nominated for an Academy Award. The rose-for-mom spot, in particular, is breathtaking. Russian artist Alexander Petrov paints on a pane of glass, using his fingers. He photographs the painting and then—before the paint dries—swishes and swoops it around to create the next frame in the sequence. The effect is slurrily enchanting. As for the light bulb spot (and I found this somehow even more impressive), the entire thing is simply hand-drawn with a No. 2 pencil. (The color in the light bulbs was added later.)
Using animation is a clever and time-saving way to differentiate these from other airline ads. From here out, when you see animation and hear Gershwin, you'll immediately know it's United. By the way, how brilliant was it, back in 1987, when United first thought to license "Rhapsody in Blue"? They've pretty much stuck with it ever since. It's the rare song that everybody likes; it's a genuine piece of American pop history; and it's now so linked with United that it frees them to structure ads differently. "Unlike a traditional ad," says United communications exec Jerry Dow, "we don't have to say the name of the brand in the first five seconds, and again in the second half, and again at close." The song does the branding work for them. It's also amazingly versatile—several different movements, with a wide range of themes and emotions. So United can use it in contexts both wistful and triumphant, but it's always recognizably the same song.
But it's not just that these ads look distinct. They convey a mood that's wildly different from those of other airline ads. The competition tends to pitch attributes (price, leg room, etc.). United is pitching an emotional bond with the traveler. The animation techniques, the stories, and the song all foster an upscale mood—of confidence, expansiveness, elegance, optimism. And that's the United brand (or at least United hopes so).
Often I prefer ads that emphasize actual selling points over some vague vibe. But United is targeting a unique demographic: frequent business travelers. They don't care as much about specifics like price (since they usually don't pay for the ticket), and they really are looking for a long-term, monogamous relationship with just one airline (to bank frequent flyer miles and elite rewards and such). They tend to develop an allegiance, even an identity as a business traveler: I'm a United flyer. In short, they care about brand image. And as the group creative director for the ad (Stuart D'Rozario of the Fallon Minneapolis agency) told me, "You can't build a brand around leg room and check-in machines."
Grade: B+. Points off for the tag line, uttered by Robert Redford: "It's time to fly." Partly because I know that United's in bankruptcy protection, I hear a sort of keening, prodding urgency in the line. Like: It's time to fly—now! Please fly, damn it! Come on! We're bankrupt here! Help us out!