Commentary

Make American Great Again -- Banish People!

"Forget all those variations on tiresome aviation ad clichés like offers of extra leg room or better WiFi,” said the CMO of American Airlines in my mind, in a statement that I am making up.

I have to fictionalize it, because frankly, I can’t believe how otherwise empty, arrogant, and delusional this new AA ad campaign is.

“What’s the sense in using good ad money to try to make this so-called traveler feel better?” the marketing person in my alt/faux world says. “Flying is a nightmare, and it’s only getting worse. We all know that.

“So we flipped the concept in a major way,” this person who does not exist explains.

“The first of our major learnings was this: A brand like American Airlines will never improve, and consumers shouldn’t bother expecting us to. Got it? It’s not like we can make American Airlines great again.”

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This faux CMO continues: “So, we’re just being honest. Instead of working on ourselves, we decided to build a better passenger: someone neater, more organized, faster-walking, without baggage (except for pricey noise-canceling earphones.)

"Yup, someone who can follow orders and accept unlimited abuse. And will still try to bring the mood up on the plane! Yes, that’s our ‘Greatest flyer!’”

Seriously, that’s about the only way I can make sense of this ridiculous dumping of responsibility on the poor, exhausted, ravenous unfortunates who actually paid good money to get squished into a seat on a delayed AA flight. (Unless it’s a satire on hollow, pompous advertising. )

Even spelling the word flier with a “y” comes off as pretentious. Like an art director said, “I don’t care how American newspapers spell it! It looks better, like an anchor, and anyway, this has nothing to do with real life or real people!”

The fact that the campaign comes from Crispin, Porter + Bogusky is another head-spinner.  

But let’s give it a chance, and take a look: First of all, as with the aforementioned letter “y,” the whole thing is fey, and considerably over-art directed (although the visuals suggest an elevated version of the kind of art you get on Getty Images).

And at the same time, it’s weirdly underpopulated. We see nary a human being, except for the enormous, disembodied head of a baby, from the adorable chubby cheek, nostrils and eyelashes on up, lost in space. No planes, no airports, no people, no food.

The main 60-second video opens on some vast expanse of desert, with what looks like a microscopic clan. (Danger, American Family Robinson!) They are just tiny dots in the Lawrence of Arabia-scape.

You get the idea that whomever designed this work really doesn’t like depicting anything as messy and demanding as, ugh, hold your nose, wait for it: people!

There’s a definite disconnect in this vast emptiness being used as the visual behind the line of type suggesting that great flyers “walk faster in airports.” Huh?  

These miniature ‘Murricans shown here look stranded and desperate, like they should be airlifted out of there ASAP before they start sacrificing each other for food.

No matter: It sure is relatable. Another line is that great flyers “ask before opening or closing the window shade.” Wait, what? Is that a major problem?

There’s also a cohesive graphic device: throughout  all of the sparse frames, we see the shadow of the new abstracted eagle and wings AA logo, passing slowly overhead. It seems ominous, and when it’s not, it reads more as a drone than a passenger plane (Relief from all of this emptiness? An Amazon order, maybe?).

There is one line I actually like: “They pack like they’re solving a crossword puzzle.” Underneath it, we see a horizontal visual of a pair of polished, narrow, men’s business shoes, and all-black accessories super-neatly laid out. (Great flyers have narrow feet?)  

Wait! What’s wrong with this picture?

It seems to suggest that the 50% of humanity known as “women” can’t even hope to be great flyers.

Never mind. On the equally empty Web site devoted to the campaign, it says,  “Everything you need is right in front of you.”  

This reminded me of the last flight I ever took on this airline, about eight years ago. I am not making up that I was given a seat in a row that was jerrybuilt in front of the boarding door, so I and my seatmates had to stand in the bathroom while our fellow fliers came through. Otherwise they would have rolled and tripped over our legs and feet.

The location was great for deboarding, however. And I walked out of there in my neatly polished mens’ shoes, and my gleaming men’s watch, with my shade up and my mood still elevated at the thought of never returning to American Airlines again.

I mean, like, really, who could stand  those people and their baggage?

17 comments about "Make American Great Again -- Banish People! ".
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  1. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, September 1, 2016 at 6:25 p.m.

    Right on, Barbara! At first, I just thought this was the worst, most destructive brand campaign I have ever seen.  Then I thought it might have been run by United or JetBlue, in a new kind of disinformation initiative we have not seen before. Or, a spoof ad like something originated by SNL or Lewis Black. Alas, but no, apparently someone actually thought that, given the abysmally negative reputation of this airline and most others as well, let's try to change the subject. Is advertising really dead? Not completely, but this campaign will certainly help to grease the skids!

  2. Bruce Dundore from Lazaroff/Dundore, September 1, 2016 at 6:29 p.m.

    I don't know. Didn't have those problems or that interpretation. I got an airline as good as their best passengers. Thought it looked nice- liked the shadow. I also know that more flights would be on time if people didn't bring on those roll on suitcases. 

  3. Don Perman from self, September 1, 2016 at 6:33 p.m.

    Wow. So, it's not their job to deliver a good flight...it's ours to love what we're given.  Yet, I had a good recent American Eagle flight.  The pilots seem to really enjoy their careers.  All that aside, thanks for another funny, insightful comment. And the ad really is nonsensical.
    Good work, Barbara.

  4. Mark Hornung from MBrandSF, September 1, 2016 at 6:34 p.m.

    In a way, I don't envy anyone working on an airline account (except for maybe Southwest). The service is terrible, the pricing capricious, and no one has any illusions about it improving any time soon. That said, this American campaign is every bit as delusional and, um, stupid as you describe. Am I supposed to really believe AA attracts a better caliber of passenger? Or even that the power of suggestion in the campaign will make their pax behave better and thus improve the flying experience for everyone? Word to AA management - fliers... excuse me, "flyers" (sic)... didn't reduce the seat rake to absurd proportions. You did. Flyers don't nickle and dime me every time I turn around. Flyers don't hike prices at a whim. All of those nefarious deeds originate with you AA, and no amount of artistry (or artifice) will convince me otherwise. Indeed, the fact that you are trying to deflect attention away from the real problem insults my intelligence and just makes me even more angry. 

  5. Jane Farrell from Freelance, September 1, 2016 at 7:24 p.m.

    How can you do an airline commecial that opens with a shot of people standing in what looks like the Gobi Desert? The whole spot is minimalist to the point of ridiculousness. Thanks for a great analysis.

  6. Russel Wohlwerth from Wohlwerh Consulting Group LLC, September 1, 2016 at 7:55 p.m.

    American, you used to be a class act! As an American elite flyer, I wish you would have invited me to a focus group on this campaign concept. I would have given you an earful. If American attracted great flyers because it was a great airline, this concept would have "flown". The reality is there are not a lot of choices when it come to selecting an airline and American's product has been in decline for some time. This is about as disingenuous as McDonald’s celebrating its great “eaters”.

  7. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, September 1, 2016 at 8 p.m.

    It rather reminds me of "Up In th Air" (which featured American as George Clooney's airline of choice). If you're George Clooney, you're welcome. Otherwise, the bus awaits.

  8. Bill Weber from Bill Weber Studios, September 1, 2016 at 8:07 p.m.

    O.M.G. "Doing what we do best" is reminding us of our "limited time on earth?" Your critique is right-on, Barbara. 

  9. William Hoelzel from JWB Associates, September 1, 2016 at 8:26 p.m.

    When I was a kid, an American Flyer was a toy train.

    Maybe that's the hidden message in this ad:  Take the train; it couldn't be any worse.

  10. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 1, 2016 at 9:31 p.m.

    Oy vey Oy vey Oy vey.

  11. Dyann Espinosa from IntraStasis, September 2, 2016 at 3:55 a.m.

    It does seem to have the same essential message as Donald Trump (at least when I last looked), America could be great with a lot less (unwanted/unwelcome) lower caste people. American has a similar message, and reinforces the "Hey, it's not up to us to make things/your life/your travel better. But we'll throw people off the plane with the slightest provocation if they don't fit our profile. It won't matter because others will swarm in to take their place, and nothing will really change for you.
    Oh, and this ad concept arose from a focus group of MacDonald's night shift who are Pokemon Go freaks. 
    How're those narrow Florsheims workin' for you?

  12. David Mountain from Marketing and Advertising Direction, September 2, 2016 at 9:09 a.m.

    Bring on the self-driving cars powered by a solar grid, and cut down on the number of flights overall with the vehicle taking over for the overnight journey. Better for the environment, and gets us away from the soul-deadeing TSA Experience...

  13. pj bednarski from MediaPost.com, September 2, 2016 at 11:33 a.m.

    Who are any airline image ads for, anyway? There was a time people had "their" airline, but dereg and mergers took care of that. Nobody in the whole world, even those fliers with the right attitude, would choose American over another. It's all price and convenience, or worse, whatever is available. 

  14. Jim English from The Met Museum, September 2, 2016 at 9:09 p.m.

    Thanks Barbara. A short while back while referring to an another "American Airlines fantasy" (Late Nate campaign) you described passengers as " more jammed in, unfed,overcharged and delayed than ever."

  15. p wilkinson from mexitv, September 3, 2016 at 9:12 a.m.

    great analysis.  Have you all ever been in the last row pushed up against the bathrooms, no recline?  It is not a pleasure.

     Where I used to live in the beautiful small city Zacatecas, Mexico Boeing sends a team to the Calera Airport.  US airline companies contract plane overhauls/repairs that do not have to follow safety regs.  An ex Boeing engineer friend who was on the project quit as he was required to rubber-stamp fixes that were in no way according to USAF or US general safety standards.  Their team was working (to save these highly profitable co.s money of course) with non-English speaking HS grads - there are a slew of qualified bilingual young engineers in MX but Boeing chooses to pay less and use contract hires without benefits.

    When is this trumpness going to end?  Are the space aliens planning total destruction so they can move in and re-take earth?

  16. Jonathan McEwan from MediaPost, September 5, 2016 at 8 p.m.

    Ugh. I just watched it and thought "I know what they're trying to do, but it's totally not working." Heavy handed, and somewhat amateurish, the messaging is all wrong. It's nothing compared to the delightful whimsy of United's current U.S. Olympic Team co-branding sponsorship. I can't speak for American, as I mostly fly United, but in answer to PJ, I start all my searches at United.com. Unlike other carriers, United has been making improvements and posting record profits. We live in a new mileage rewards economy. On a recent trip I discovered the entire Newark Liberty United terminal decked out with stores and restaurants that accepted MileagePlus Miles as well as money for payment. It's a brave new world indeed. And it's ever changing. But I digress. This American campaign is off message and sub par in execution. I give them a B for rebranding and trying to lift their image (they need it). But the campaign just doesn't fly.

  17. Thomas Pick from Webbiquity LLC, September 7, 2016 at 9:19 a.m.

    First thought - why advertise at all? Has any traveler ever changed his or her travel plans because of seeing one of these ads? Has any "flyer" ever said, "Gee, I've never heard of (American or Delta or United), but after seeing that intriguing ad, maybe I'll try them next time!"? Nope.

    Second, this reminds me of an excellent point I saw in a recent blog post by Babette Ten Haken: "Far too many companies focus on creating positive experiences for resolving negative issues involving product performance failures. That’s your perspective. You are counting on your products to fail your customers at some point. On the other hand, the customer has a different idea. When purchasing your product, service or equipment, clients anticipate never having a negative issue." In other words, instead of investing tens of millions of dollars to mollify unhappy customers and resolve their issues, why not invest in preventing those problems in the first place?

    Which leads to thought #3: In the case of airlines, customers of course DO expect negative experiences. The bar has already been set astoundingly low. So instead of creating these weird, surreal, pointless commercials, make a simple one with the airline CEO looking into the camera saying: "This year, every employee of (airline name) is committed to one simple goal: we are not going to suck as badly." Then live up to it. That's an ad that may actually get results.

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