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.

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"The Face" British Airways
“The Face” British Airways

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.

Manhattan (1983)

Saatchi & Saatchi secured the British Airways advertising contract in 1982, shortly after Lord King was appointed Chairman.

This was their first major TV advertising campaign, also bearing the “World’s Favourite Airline”. This was substantiated by the fact that BA flew more international passengers than any other airline. BA has since lost this title to Lufthansa, Ryanair and others.

In this ad BA used the fact that the volume of passengers it flew across the Atlantic was greater than the population of Manhattan. By Saatchi & Saatchi’s own admission, they did not want to use shots of BA aircraft or interiors. In a very cinematic ad, directed by Richard Loncraine and produced by James Garrett & Partners, the island of Manhattan is seen flying over suburban London on its approach to land at Heathrow, to the surprise of onlookers.

The essence of this ad is a credible factual claim, but presented in a very bold and confident way.

Monument (1987)

In 1987, BA was privatised and floated on the stock exchange.

It remained so until it merged with Iberia in 2011 under the umbrella of International Airlines Group. The initial share offering was 11 times oversubcribed. Here is a rather self-congratulatory ad, highlighting its superior financial performance.

The Face (1989)

The Face is probably the most famous TV ad BA ever produced.

Aside from its strong visual impact, the beauty of this advertisement is that it focuses on what airlines are fundamentally about: bringing people together.

The voice-over, by the actor Tom Conti, says “Every year the world’s favourite airline brings 24 million 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.

The ad was directed by Hugh Hudson and filmed in Utah using local school children with a budget of $2m. BA called on the services of experts used to directing crowds at Olympic events to direct the movement of the participants. The ad was seen by 600 million people in 70 countries.

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? (1988)

Here we have an ad for BA’s long-haul business class product Club World which launched in January 1988.

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.

I Don’t Believe In Concorde (1992)

In the 1990s, British Airways used to give away free seats on Concorde trips to Lapland.

Here a father explains this to his daughter, to which she replies “I Don’t Believe In Concorde.”

Gatwick – The hub without the hubbub (1993)

From the 1990s, BA operated a “dual hub” strategy at London Gatwick having been based in the North Terminal since March 1988.

At its peak in 1999 more than 35 long-haul aircraft were based at Gatwick serving destinations in Latin America and Africa.

From 2000, in the face of financial losses, BA began to progressively “de hub” Gatwick with many services transferred back to Heathrow. Today, the airport is largely concentrated on point to point leisure traffic. This ad is intended to highlight the relative ease of flying through the North Terminal, which BA vacated in early 2017.

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.

The World’s Favourite Airline (1997)

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, to the sound of “Something In The Air” by Thunderclap Newman, 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)

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.

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.

Club World’s Softest Ever Bed (2005)

In 2005, BA began to update the original version of its first ever fully flat bed in business featuring new cushioning technology used in an aircraft seat for the first time.

ba.com Have you clicked yet? (2005)

A simple idea featuring a passenger walking straight from their apartment to board a BA aircraft.

The purpose of this spot was to highlight the then novel online check-in feature of ba.com. Whilst airlines were initially unsure of how to take advantage of the internet, BA was quick to spot the potential, securing the domain name ba.com (which is hugely effective in communications) the opportunity to give passengers more control of their journey and to push routine pre-flight processes away from the often very busy airport.

Business Class Is Different On British Airways (2005)

This ad was produced by the New York office of M&C Saatchi for the US market. In the early 2000s, BA had a clear leadership position over is US rivals as the only airline with flat beds in business class. However, they did begin to catch-up. In this ad we see a businessman in his office in New York and items such as a glass of champagne are placed beside him by an invisible hand. This was intended to highlight the nature of its service that anticipates passenger needs.

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)

Attractive Prices (2007)

An elegant execution of a simple message about the pricing of short-haul fares.

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.

The Magic Of Flying (2013)

Strictly speaking, this is not a TV ad. This was developed for BA by OgilvyOne to highlight the magic of flying.

An interactive billboard in Piccadilly Circus would respond as a BA aircraft flew over it. OgilvyOne had installed an antennae on a nearby building which could identify overflying aircraft. A child would point to the aircraft and the billboard would display its flight number and origin, highlighting the breadth of destinations served by BA.

More to read on BA Marketing & Branding:

7 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!”



  2. Pingback: BA parts company with Bartle Bogle Hegarty – London Air Travel

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