Saturday, April 12, 2008

American Airlines: What Have I Done For You Lately?

For a creator in the advertising business, the question is always, "What have you done for me lately?", or to put it more succinctly, you're only as good as your last ad. You can be the talk of the cocktail party or the "He's the guy who did...blah, blah, blah..." guy – or, yoAmerican Airlines, Bozell-Jacobs-Kenyon-and-Eckhardt, Aadvantage, Lenier Temmerlin, Temmerlin-McClain,Bob Crandall, Bob Dole, DOT, Elizabeth Dole, Flights cancelled, Robert Crandall, Safety, Flying Trashcan, Patrick Scullin, Geof Kernu can be an absolute nobody if any of your famous stuff is over a year old. Whenever I have a spot on the air or an ad in a magazine I am always acutely aware of how people react to the work when they don't know I'm the creator. I watched a man on a plane once spend more than 30 seconds with one of my print ads and was positively thrilled. He actually read the copy! It's a little bit like being nearly famous because nobody really, outside the industry, except your wife and parents ever knows who makes this stuff. Ad people don't exactly get guest spots on Leno or Letterman – and Donnie Deutsch is too busy being famous himself to let anyone else in the business share his spotlight.

But this week, by shear force majur I received the chance to trot out one of my old ads, and regain just a nano-second of my 15 minutes of fame. This week, over "3000 American Airlines flights were cancelled" because the Airline had failed to conduct the necessary safety checks on electrical and other mechanical functions. The government put the hammer down and a lot of airlines, not just American, were levied some pretty hefty fines – yet American Airlines shares dropped by only 4%.

The ad you see below was created in 1987 (Oh dear, 21 years ago...) and run in everything from Time Magazine to the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune and all the major news dailies in Chicago, New York, L.A. and the country. It was part of a series highlighting airline safety at the encouragement – and I use that term humourously – of Elizabeth Dole, head of the US Department of Transportation (DOT) and wife of Bob Dole, a former Senator and Presidential Candidate.

But the way things like this happen is almost as interesting as anything happening at at all.

In 1987, I work for Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon & Eckhardt in Dallas, Texas and American Airlines is our client. Bob Crandall, then President and CEO of American, was known to be a hard charging, hard smoking and hard running CEO. He loved to smoke, but he loved to jog as well. He was a "bull by the horns" sort of guy and brought you things like the Hub and Spoke System and frequent flyer miles. Many say he single-handedly reinvigorated the industry during the Reagan, post deregulation environment.

One Sunday morning, Bob is up – at 5am – jogging when his phone rings. On the other end of the line is Elizabeth Dole, not exactly known for being a softie herself. "Bob", she says..."We've got a problem. Flights are late, the planes are dirty and people all over this country are complaining to the DOT about it. You've gotta tell me how we're gonna fix this". She went on to exAmerican Airlines, Bozell-Jacobs-Kenyon-and-Eckhardt, Aadvantage, Lenier Temmerlin, Temmerlin-McClain,Bob Crandall, Bob Dole, DOT, Elizabeth Dole, Flights cancelled, Robert Crandall, Safety, Flying Trashcan, Flying Trash Can, Patrick Scullin, Geof Kernplain that she had a bit of an idea herself and related to Mr. Crandall that the airlines themselves could figure out how to fix it or the government could send a few inspectors by to help.

The message could not have been more clear.The phrase, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help", continues to rumble the most hardened of business types and Crandall was no exception. Within minutes he was on the phone to Lenier Temerlin, our CEO. The job? Get him an advertising campaign he could take to Washington the next day to explain to Mrs. Dole how he was going to "fix" things. A multitude of phones began to ring and then, eventually, mine. By noon that Sunday, nearly the entire creative department of the agency was in a mass jam session to satisfy our boss, his boss, Bob Crandall and finally Elizabeth Dole. Only possibly because I created this particular ad, and a number of others in the series, I don't recall much of the other work produced for consideration that day – and I doubt Crandall does either.

The whole idea of telling an airline that they should run a picture of a flying trashcan with the words "plane is a mess" in the headline and their logo attached, isn't the kind of shiny, happy people holding hands stuff the airlines usually buy – but this one hit Crandall right where he lived. I remember his comments directly on the areas of industry leadership, honesty and taking the high ground and you've got to admit, it's ballsy stuff we made together – the logic being, if the cabin's not clean do you really want to look in the engine compartment? Seeing it double-spread in Time Magazine was pretty sweet.

My contributions here were the concept, visual and headline. Patrick Scullin was my co-creative director and Geof Kern the photographer – and yes, that's a photograph. Anyone who wants to know how and why we did it this way can email me with questions. Nearly 100 million dollars were spent running this campaign and within six months, with appropriate changes in daily operations, American held the top spot in the DOT's customer service rankings, which were published monthly in all the papers. Cheers, Mr. Crandall, wherever you are...

For more in the 'What Have I Done For You Lately Series' check here:

(I)WHIDFYL I: American Airlines
(II)WHIDFYL II: Nintendo
(III) WHIDFYL III: Charles & Ray Eames
(IV) WHIDFYL IV: Heartbeat Vietnam


  1. You're a perty danged good story teller, feller. Good, brisk eloquently, colloquially en'ertaining pace...

    Just a thot: a few more strategically posted para breaks might make an easier read.

    And my two dong's-worth on the overall yarn: Despite the spectacular reach and bucks the campaign pulled in, in retrospect, as a prospect, i still would have canned your ass for having my airline's name so bold against that satirically trashy background and big bold disparaging copy, and not being able to IMMEDIATELY, big visually, catch that we are the "Other Guys", the Good Ones, without having to read a single smaller word.

    That's just how much faith i have in folks' attention spans... So it goes...

    ... which brings up the fact it's now two days (IndoChina Time) after the day God died last year. Kurt Vonnegut, RIP, up in Heaven. -- AD.2008.Apr.13.Sun.01h00.ICT

  2. Yeah, I know, hindsight's 20/20. I had hundred's of helpers trying to soften up the whole campaign but Crandall had basically bought in from the git go. When you get this much of a shot in the adbiz, you take it. I went on to write and produce a Super Bowl spot for them that wasn't near as interesting or interrupting or powerful.


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