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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris SWEATY PALMS AND AIRLINE ADVERTISING

BY CHRIS BARNETT

December 1, 1992 -- Every 25 years or so, someone has the guts to create--and approve--airline advertising that is not just a syrupy spiel rhapsodizing the near-orgasm of flight. After all, a jetliner is nothing more than a fast bus with wings.

The last time it happened was in 1967 when now-defunct Pacific Air Lines ran a single ad admitting most people are "scared witless to fly." Practically overnight, the airline filled every seat, its stock leaped, the chairman cashed out and ran away to Ireland, and the adman, the legendary Stan Freberg, was stiffed with a pile of unpaid bills.

Now, recently launched Reno Air, billed--in a nod and a wink to its hometown--as the "biggest little airline in the world," is the latest to lift off with tongue jammed in cheek. But before its ad agency, San Francisco–based Goldberg Moser O'Neill, sat down to write and draw, a squadron of researchers grilled dozens of potential passengers in focus groups. The feedback was startling.

"They told us the last thing they cared to hear about was a new airline," says Brian O'Neill, GMO's creative director. "Everyone has had a bad airline experience and loves to talk about them at parties. They said the only airline advertising they would listen to had to be honest. [It couldn't] talk down to them or gloss over the reality of things that were going to happen."

In Reno Air's case, it would mirror an intelligently designed airline. It has simple fares ($50 from San Francisco to Reno, $90 to Portland and Seattle) and optional frills (a full-on first-class service) and nice touches like serving passengers a full can of soft drinks.

"We wanted to generate awareness with straightforward advertising that was whimsical and noticeable," says Reno chief executive Jeff Erickson. What's more, being a start-up, the budget was tight: $500,000.

O'Neill and his GMO colleagues are known for stretching a buck for entrepreneurial clients. After soaking up the focus-group findings, the agency cooked up simple, chatty newspaper ads, radio commercials and a few billboards.

Sample ad to promo its prices: "This Ad Was Written For Every Cheap, Penny-Pinching, Miserly, Scrooge-Like, Stingy, Tight-Fisted, Skinflint You Ever Knew--your boss, your mother-in-law, your best friend."

To get Reno-Tahoe bound folks out of their cars, another ad was headlined: "Potholes, chains, RVs, Radar Guns and other good reasons to launch new airline service to Reno/Tahoe." Intro price: $35 one-way.

Another ad aimed at motorists notes: "We all know planes go a tad bit faster than cars [OK, about 320 miles an hour faster]."

The Catchy ads have apparently worked, too. Reno Air's planeloads are already profitable, its stock has soared to $17 from $7 a share in the past few months and the airline is expanding to the Midwest this spring.

Even so, it was a tame takeoff compared to Pacific Air Lines' outrageous launch a quarter of a century ago.

Seems PAL hadn't a pal in the world. It was a weak fifth in the 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 chairman, New York attorney Matthew McCarthy, hired humorist, recording artist and advertising mercenary Stan Freberg.

Time was short, of course. "I always get called when the ship is sinking for the third time," says Freberg.

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 explains.

Plus, he learned that 70 percent of all Americans had never flown. "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 says he never bothered to get the ad approved by his client. Convinced it was exactly the solution to the PAL's woes, he typeset and engraved it and 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 recalls. "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: "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' nonstop 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." And 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 …"

Freberg had other strategies up his sleeve. 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 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 kickoff, Freberg got a shock.

"I was right in the middle of planning" a railroad campaign--"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--"when I discovered why they hired Freberg."

Pacific Air Lines was part of a three-way merger with Bonanza Air Lines and West Coast Airlines, he says, but because PAL was such a lame carrier, it was about to be dumped out of the deal. PAL's chairman wanted instant visibility and excitement and figured hiring Freberg would do what Freberg does for clients.

Thanks in part to Freberg's efforts, the merger went through, the three airlines became Air West and the newly enriched CEO bailed out.

Says Freberg, "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.' 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 the Smithsonian Institute with a lot of other Freberg classics. ("Today the Wrinkles, Tomorrow the Pits" for Sunsweet prunes is a one of them.)

But it almost came back to life. Freberg says 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."

Not long after, billionaire recluse Howard Hughes bought Air West and renamed it Hughes Airwest.

But Freberg never got that second call. Hughes sold the carrier in 1980 to Republic Airlines, which had been formed the year before by the merger of North Central Airlines and Southern Airways. Six years later, Republic was merged into Northwest Airlines. And the Sweaty Palms campaign was never seen again.

Copyright © 1992-2013 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.