A look at British Airways’ most memorable TV advertisements

Our archive collection and commentary of British Airways’ most memorable TV advertisements over the past 40 years.

British Airways has a long history of producing some of the most memorable TV advertisements with the aid of its advertising agencies (formerly Saatchi & Saatchi/M&C Saatchi and more recently BBH). As well as simply being enjoyable to watch, the ads provide a commentary on both the changes in the air travel industry over the past three decades and changing social attitudes.

The Face (1989)

The Face is probably the most famous TV ad BA produced at a time when it called itself “The World’s Favourite Airline” (based on the fact it carried more international passengers than any other airline). BA has since lost this title to Lufthansa, Ryanair and others. Aside from its strong visual impact, the beauty of this advertisement is that it focuses on what airlines are fundamentally about: bringing people together. Save for the roar of Concorde at the end of the ad, images and sounds of aircraft are entirely absent. The use of non-airline imagery to communicate both the BA brand and its products is a common theme through many of the ads in this selection. That some 20 years after it was produced this ad still has the ability to turn heads is a testament to its quality. Whilst in current economic times it is unlikely we will see an ad of this scale and ambition produced again, it would be interesting to see how this concept would have looked in 2012, not only with current pre and post production technology but also with the use of interactive and social media to support the campaign. That said, some of the most recent BA ads do show a renewed sense of confidence present in these early BA advertisements.

The soundtrack to the ad is Aria on Air by Malcolm McClaren.

This ad was also imitated in 2007 by Silverjet, a short-lived all business class airline that operated routes from London Luton airport to New York and Dubai. The ad was produced by M&C Saatchi after they parted company from BA.

Pleasant Trip?

Here we have an ad for BA’s long-haul business class product Club World. A group of colleagues in London think they have set up a colleague seconded to New York to fail by despatching him on a Red Eye flight to London in Club World “Like a lamb to the slaughter, gentleman”. Such naked male one-upmanship reflects the business culture of the times and is not something we would see reflected (at least so overtly in advertising) today.

Where Is Everybody? (1994)

Airlines commonly advertise promotional offers with enticing images of the destinations on offer. This ad doesn’t do that. Instead the viewer is presented with a near post-apocalyptic vision of home as a man wakes up to find the entire city of London deserted and, on first view, only at the end of the ad does the viewer have any clue as to what the ad is for. To present the viewer with such an uncertain vision was a brave way of conveying the promotion that could otherwise have been done in a very ordinary and unremarkable way.

Concorde (1996)

Although Concorde was withdrawn from service in 2003, it still has a strong place in BA’s heritage (The Concorde Room is still in situ at New York JFK airport and a Concorde Room lounge was installed at Heathrow Terminal 5). However, BA has always used Concorde in advertisements sparingly, perhaps partly to preserve its elusiveness. Here we see one example of Concorde in BA’s advertising.

PJ O’Rourke (1999)

Here, at a time when BA was still referring to itself as “The World’s Favourite Airline” (and Virgin Atlantic had launched legal action to stop BA using the strapline), in a bold move BA recruited PJ O’Rourke to poke fun at British eccentricities and give British viewers a gentle ticking off for not being more proud of their de-facto national carrier.

Famous Faces (1999)

This ad features a mixture of filmed and archive footage of well-known (Sir Winston Churchill, Damon Hill) and less well-known travellers passing through the airport over decades with a girl walking in the opposite direction who is ultimately let through a secret door.

Space Station (2000)

Here is another ad of its era using non-airline imagery to reflect the strong product differentiation BA had historically enjoyed over many of its competitors, particularly airlines on the other side of the atlantic. This is less so today as other airlines have caught up and new competitors have emerged.

It’s Better To Be There (2002)

This is one ad unfortunately I don’t have a clip to go with. The events of 11 September 2001 had a profound impact on the airline industry, both in the short and long term. This ad, first shown in January 2002, emphasised the importance of face to face contact in building business relationships (a theme BA picked up again in 2009 after the Lehman Brothers collapse). An American businessman is featured receiving pitches from British businesses: one despatches its proposal by post and conducts the pitch by telephone. As the American businessman promises to give it due consideration a rival team walks into to conduct their pitch face to face.

Club World Sleeper Service (2003)

In 2000, BA set a new standard in the industry by being the first airline to install fully-flat beds in its business class cabin, Club World. This is now the benchmark for long-haul business class. Here we have two ads for the Club World “Sleeper Service” which is designed to maximise sleep for passengers on board. One features a passenger going to sleep in Central Park and waking in Westminster and another features the passenger going to sleep in Times Square and waking in Piccadilly Circus. The ads illustrate not only the power of non-airline imagery to articulate an airline product offering but also the effectiveness of an elegant execution of a simple idea.

The Way To Fly (2004)

This is what BA terms a “Masterbrand” ad campaign that advertises the overall BA brand, rather than an individual product or a price-based promotion. Here, a male passenger travels from Manhattan to a beach at an unspecified destination (believed to be Mozambique) to meet his family. Both are accompanied by an orchestra at every point of their journey. Some may raise their eyebrows of the placement of a male passenger in the business class cabin and his wife and children in economy on a separate flight. The presence of the orchestra adds an extra layer of ambition and distinction to the production, that could have otherwise been clichéd and uninspiring. This ad is noteworthy for the production values and the countless different scenes and shots (including many aerial shots) that make up the 60 second advertisement.

Clouds (2006)

In 2005, BA ended its long-standing relationship with M&C Saatchi and appointed Bartle Bogle Heggarty (BBH). M&C Saatchi responded by taking out a double page advertisement in The Times newspaper featuring highlights from its work and an invitation for bookings from airlines. Here we see one of BBH’s first pieces of work for BA, an ad featuring a cover of John Denver’s “Leaving On A Jet Plane”. A second ad (below) was filmed in Circular Quay in Sydney and features the strapline BBH produced for BA in their pitch “Upgrade to British Airways”, which ultimately proved to be short-lived. The second ad is one of many to feature “The Flower Duet” by Léo Delibes from the opera Lakmé.

Upgrade to BA (2007)

The Good Life (2008)

This is an ad produced to mark the opening of Terminal 5 that was unfortunately never shown in the UK due to its chaotic opening. The song is “Good Life” by Julie London. The terminal has gone on to be a considerable success and has resulted in a step change in BA’s operational performance at Heathrow.

To Fly. To Serve. (2011)

BA was hit hard by the global financial crisis. The backbone of the airline’s financial health, long-haul business class traffic, fell away following the collapse of Lehman Brothers and a painful (and quite public) restructuring followed. In September 2011, BA relaunched its brand under the motto “To Fly. To Serve.” which has been a long part of BA’s heritage and, tellingly, one staff have been familiar with. This ad focuses the role of BA (and its predecessor airlines, Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA) in aviation history. What is noteworthy about this ad is the focus on the “masculine” hardware and mechanics of aviation, something which has been largely absent in the other ads featured here.

London 2012

In a calculated risk, that ultimately provided to be a masterstroke, BA used its sponsorship of the London Olympic & Paralympic Games to encourage passengers not to travel and stay home to give Team GB and Paralympics GB the “Home Advantage”.

This ad featured a British Airways 777 aircraft being prepared for take-off at Heathrow, but instead of taxing to the runway, it makes its way to the Olympic Park in Stratford, passing a number of London landmarks (Trafalgar Square, The Palace of Westminster, The Shard Tower) on the way. The ad features many nice touches that show great attention to detail, such as the seat belt sign being activated as the aircraft passes a speed bump on the road.

In a sign of the times, the ad also featured an interactive element where viewers could enter their (UK) postcode to see the aircraft taxing down their street: http://taxi.ba.com. BBH also provides some insights into the campaign on its blog.

Update We have also reviewed Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s advertising work for BA from 2005 to 2017.

4 thoughts on “A look at British Airways’ most memorable TV advertisements”

  1. Hi,

    A great collection, thanks for curating it.

    Any idea where I might find the airline tvc (I always thought it was a BA ad) featuring two astronauts at check-in next to a smoke-billowing alien creature? The check-in lady asks the astronauts, “Smoking or non-smoking?” They look at the creature, at each other, then back to the check-in attendant and answer emphatically in unison, “Non-smoking!”

    Cheers,

    Mark

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