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Stan Freberg on Flying: Sweaty Stuff
April 9, 2015 -- The literally legendary Stan Freberg died Tuesday at the age of 88. The New York Times has reviewed his astounding career and his friend Mark Evanier offered up a contemporary appreciation. But it's also okay if business travelers remember Freberg for just one of his great advertising coups, the amazing, shocking, hilarious and unforgettable Sweaty Palms campaign in 1967 for the otherwise totally forgotten Pacific Air Lines (PAL).
Freberg, like his almost client, Howard Hughes, was brilliant and eccentric. When I decided to write about the PAL campaign in 1992, it took me a couple weeks to chase Freberg down.
Then one night my phone rang at midnight. "You called?" Freberg's inimitable voice said from the other end of the line. And off we went, remembering the days when airlines would hire a genius like Freberg to remake their image.
Seems PAL hadn't a pal in the world in 1967. It was a weak fifth in the crowded California Corridor market dominated by the late, great PSA, but it was about to kick off San Francisco-to-Burbank service. Unfortunately, its longtime ad agency, D'Arcy, came up dry creatively. So the airline's chief executive and largest shareholder, New York attorney Matthew McCarthy, hired humorist and advertising mercenary Stan Freberg.
Time was short, of course. "I always get called when the ship is sinking for the third time," he said.
He moved fast. With no time for--or faith in--psyche-probing consumer research, Freberg chatted up a pilot from the Strategic Air Command and wrote away to the Flight Safety Institute that "runs panic attack schools." He found out people and many pilots were afraid to fly.
"As a cure, people were put in flight simulators, but most had to go to hospitals because they wore down their fingernails trying to claw their way out," Freberg explained.
Plus, he learned that 70 percent of all Americans had never flown back in 1967. "Why? Because you think they have nowhere to go? No, some were babes in arms, some rode the Greyhound. The rest were like me--scared to fly."
Hence, he sat down to write an "ad for myself, the white-knuckled flyer."
Freberg said he never bothered to get the ad approved by his client. Convinced it was exactly the solution to PAL's woes, he typeset and engraved it himself. He also wrote a little booklet that told the client in plain prose that Pacific Air Lines "was the invisible airline." Half its passengers were accidental, passengers who "stumbled on" thinking they were on PSA.
When it came time to unveil his work, Freberg met with PAL's management and directors, read them his booklet word for word and then reached under the conference table.
"I tore off the brown wrapping paper and slid the ad down the table like a Frisbee," he recalled. "They saw the headline, jumped up and recoiled like it was a snake."
It's no wonder they were shocked. Freberg's ad was headlined: "Hey There! You With the Sweat in Your Palms."
The copy started this way: "Wish the pilot would knock off that jazz about 'That's Crater Lake coming up on the left down there, ladies and gentlemen' and tell you, instead, what the devil that funny noise was you just heard. OK? We made a big decision at Pacific Air Lines recently. Enough with the scenic travelogue and the stewardesses' non-stop smiles over the cocktails. We have a feeling you'd like to trade some of that in on a short, snappy explanation of the turbulence you've been going through for five minutes, while Lawrence Welk keeps bubbling over the Muzak just like nothing was wrong. Right? It's about time an airline faced up to something: MOST PEOPLE ARE SCARED WITLESS OF FLYING.
"Deep down inside, every time that big plane lifts off that runway, you wonder if this is it; right? You want to know something fella? So does the pilot, deep down inside."
The ad "sent PAL's directors into shock." When one complained that the airline didn't want to lose PSA's accidental travelers, Freberg shot back: "You're not exactly leaning from strength."
When another director questioned the wisdom of running the ad in The New York Times since PAL was a California airline, Freberg said "Yes, but the editors of Time and Newsweek live there. Think of the PR value."
He was right. The day the ad ran, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, anchors of the then top-rated Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC, held the ad up to the cameras and solemnly intoned "Today, probably the first honest airline advertisement ever run ... "
And just as Freberg predicted, the editors of Time saw the ad and also wrote about it.
Freberg had other strategies up his sleeve, too. He'd assembled "security kits" that looked like a box lunch from a fancy deli and gave them to passengers on every flight. Inside was a rabbit's foot with a note attached. ("Not that you'll need this, but what can it hurt?") Also included: A copy of Norman Vincent Peale's Power of Positive Thinking, a tiny pink security blanket with the word "relax" stenciled in the center, and some Silly Putty.
Freberg even rewrote the stewardesses' arrival message: "As you may have noticed, ladies and gentlemen, we made it."
Not long after the campaign launched, however, Freberg got a shock.
"I was right in the middle of planning" a railroad campaign, he explained. "Paint an airplane like a train. The captain would wear a railroad cap. [There'd be] videos of leaving Union Station" with whistle blasts and sound effects. "That's when I discovered why they hired Freberg."
Pacific Air Lines was part of a proposed three-way merger with Bonanza Air Lines and West Coast Airlines. But because PAL was such a lame carrier, Freberg claimed, it was about to be dumped out of the deal. McCarthy, the airline's chief executive, wanted instant visibility and excitement and rightly figured hiring Freberg would do what Freberg did for clients.
Thanks in part to Freberg's remarkable advertising and promotional efforts, the merger went through in 1968, the three airlines created a new carrier called Air West and the newly enriched McCarthy bailed.
"The new chairman of Air West took one look at my work and said 'What the hell are these people doing? They must have lost their minds. There's no more Pacific Air Lines, so let's kill the advertising,' " Freberg said. "Meanwhile, I'm out filming telephone poles whooshing by for the plane that was to become a train."
What has now become known as PAL's Sweaty Palms campaign is in the Smithsonian Institute with a lot of other Freberg classics. But the Sweaty Palms campaign almost came back to life.
Freberg said he once got a call from Las Vegas instructing him to be at a certain West Hollywood phone booth at 1 a.m. for an important call.
"I thought he was just joking, but I went anyway because in those days I was a night owl. Sure enough the phone rang and a voice said 'I can't tell you who I am, but if I were to buy Air West, do you have any more of that spectacular, honest advertising?' I told him my next ad was 'ripping down the béarnaise sauce curtain' and I was planning to paint this plane like it was a train."
After dickering for the carrier through its entire two-year history, billionaire recluse Howard Hughes bought Air West in 1970 and renamed it Hughes Airwest the next year.
But Freberg never got that second call. Hughes, who'd once owned TWA, sold Hughes Airwest in 1980. The buyer? Republic Airlines, which had been formed the year before by the merger of North Central Airlines and Southern Airways. Six years later, Republic was purchased by Northwest Airlines.
And Freberg's Sweaty Palms campaign was never seen again.
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