How Airlines Advertise (Usually Badly, But Here’s Some of the Best)

You don’t see a whole lot of advertising from US airlines these days. Perhaps that’s because decisions about whom to fly are made on the basis of corporate contracts, frequent flyer programs, schedule or lowest price.

American spent a bit of money on ads during bankruptcy and in conjunction with Disney’s Planes.

But beyond that, it’s a rarity. It used to be much more common, you could hardly watch television without it. Even five years ago it was ubiquitous.

Sometimes New York heats up with airline ads, ContinentalUnited needs to convince that Newark is really New York, Delta needs to convince you that they’re the biggest and baddest even though before acquiring a minority stake in Virgin Atlantic they had only three daily flights to Heathrow.

If you aren’t in New York, though, do you see airline ads regularly?

Airline advertising is hard. What are you trying to accomplish? Convince people that flying is great, they might as well do it with your competitor. But what do you have to really differentiate your product from other airline offerings? Some airlines need brand awareness, need you to know they exist, but those airlines aren’t likely well funded enough to buy much television time. (They might make outrageous ads that they hope get picked up by the news.. or by bloggers.)

There are some basic categories that ads fall into, most failing to give you a reason to fly the airline — and those that do give you a reason rarely managed to drive business.

Airline Commercials That Sell Flying

In the first half of the last century you had to sell people on flying. Sure, they might not pick your airline but the biggest issue wasn’t getting them on your plane, it was getting people into a plane at all. It was expensive, it was scary, and it was new.

In 1933, it took a 20 minute short film to educate your customers about what it meant to fly. Sure, you only mentioned your brand, but there really wasn’t any comparison to other airlines.

But the idea of selling flying hasn’t really gone away. Ad campaigns such as United’s “It’s Time to Fly” may be feel good, but they never got across the reason you’d want to fly United.

If you’re going to do that, you had darned well better be United. Because Rhapsody in Blue is Awesome. And you had darned well better have Gene Hackman doing your voiceovers too:

… because if you’re American Airlines and you tell everyone you know why they fly, that you’re watching them, then it’s just kind of creepy (in a “long before it was cool for the NSA to read your e-mail” kind of way).

Airline Commercials That Try to Sell Their Destination

Come to Canada! Sure, you could fly Delta, United, or American to get there but we have Canada in our name

Airline Commercials That Sell Features and Benefits

Americans have a bit of an inferiority complex about Europe, things from Europe are often just seen as better. I’ll never forget the shampoo and soap dispensers mounted in the shower of the low end motel my high school debate team used to stay at in Bakersfield — it was branded “EuroBath” — and TWA featured EuroBathTransworld Service. They pitched themselves as European. “Wines of the world over Washington, Continental cuisine over Colorado, foreign films over Phoenix.. Get a Taste of Europe at 30,000 feet.”

Alaska Airlines is a full service airline, they won’t nickel and dime you. Which really matters when you’ve got to use the lavatory.

Continental Airlines isn’t taking away pillows, and will still feed you at meal time. Sure, you used to make fun of airline meals. They always seemed gross. But we’ll still give them to you!

Some airlines have tried to say that their people are just better, friendlier, warmer – the kind of people you want taking care of you. (No one would try that sort of advertising today, because no one would believe it, but United used to be the Friendly Skies.)

Maybe you just want to be funny and kind of offensive to catch your viewers’ attention while you point out that your fares are really, really cheap.

Or to get the point across that you have fully flat beds that offer privacy:

Airline Commercials That Sell Sex

Southwest started out its existence selling sex. They put flight attendants in hot pants. Their stock ticket symbol is LUV. And their original automated ticket machines were called “quickies.” So it’s no surprise their commercials were similarly imbued:

Braniff believed that “even an airline hostess should look like a girl.”

There’s nothing quite like Avianova, though.

Unfortunately this commercial isn’t for an actual airline.

I’ve spent way too much time down memory lane on YouTube but there are some great memories. Watching the TWA video all the way through there are other commercials, like promoting their domestic business class “for just $10 to $30 more” that’s comfortable even for seven foot tall basketball players.

I miss good airline ads, but that doesn’t mean they make business sense. Virgin America could probably leverage television in a few markets with its brand, but it’s expensive and the don’t make money…

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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. “You’ll want to linger at Memphis, TN if you like the picture of darkies loadin’ cotton” :-O !!!

  2. YouTube (owned by Google) has to be fully shutdown for enabling catastrophic copyright infringement. Once that happens, more First Class seats. 😉

  3. Airline advertising seems more targeted and more designed to appeal to passengers who already fly more than the average American. Probably a sign of the times, including that most customers decide to fly based on ticket price and route network and thus the useful advertising is to get the price right and to create loyalty via other channels (including affinity credit card campaigns) that hit the more lucrative target market segments. General brand awareness national marketing campaigns don’t really matter as much for firms in more heavily concentrated industries where retail purchases are approached by consumers much as commodities are purchased and government regulation isn’t about to hit in major, negative ways.

  4. Wow, the Avianova commercial is something, that’s for sure. Makes me kind of embarrassed to be half-russian right now! When I emigrated to US, there was only Aeroflot. In the days of Soviet Union it actually did advertisements with slogan “Fly Aeroflot planes!”. The funny part was, it was the only airline available at the time! Those crazy russians!

  5. Come on Gary, everyone knows that United doesn’t advertise in NYC!!! They leave that to over-entitled consumers of AA and DL 😉

  6. On the one hand, it is pretty darn hard for an airline to meaningfully differentiate itself beyond its route network. And maybe its C hard product.

    On the other hand, bring back the tulip and some of UA’s classic commercials and the Rhapsody.

    You are missing some of Juan Trippe’s classic Pan Am movies.

  7. Plenty of airline advertising here in Boston, especially from Delta. I rather like their black and white “Keep Climbing” campaign with Donald Sutherland voiceovers, even if some of the claims stretch the truth.

  8. Nice to see a range of commercials from different time periods. It seems like a lot of advertisements today have focused on customer service since people view flying as more chaotic than luxurious. Take for example Jet Blue’s pigeon campaign. I remember the Continental Take Away commercial well, crazy how things have changed since 2006. I just flew 6.5 hours and didn’t get a snack, let alone a meal.

  9. Hello Gary,
    Thanks for your great illustration regarding Airlines advertising and video resources.
    All are creative in hence of catching people attractions.
    I think emirates airlines doing great for aerial advertising as well as they are targeting specific niche for promoting their services.


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