A History Of British Airways Advertising – Part 1

A look at British Airways’ advertising over the past 50 years.

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British Airways - BEA & BOAC Merger Poster
British Airways – BEA & BOAC Merger Poster (Image Credit: British Airways)

As the next couple of weeks are likely to be very light for aviation news, it’s worth delving into the past to take a look at some of the most memorable and noteworthy BA advertisements over the past 50 years.

In some ways it tells the story of bygone era. The budgets for big blockbuster TV advertising campaigns have gone. Digital marketing and distribution channels allow for much more targeted advertising.

However, as well as telling the story of the development of aviation and business and social change, they do provide an insight into how airlines respond to industry crises.

When the time is right, we’ll no doubt see airlines using some the ideas featured to encourage passengers to fly again.

The Hard Sell

BA was formed in 1974 following the merger of British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and British European Airways (BEA).

BA’s advertising in its early years was the very definition of a hard sell, using jingles and slogans such as “Fly The Flag” they were direct and forceful.

Here are two TV advertisements for BA’s turn and go “Shuttle” service and its “Super Club” long-haul business class:

Rosalind Hanby

Rosalind “Roz” Hanby was the face of BA throughout much of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Roz joined BOAC as cabin crew in the early 1970s and worked for BOAC and BA on the Boeing 707 and VC10 aircraft, as well as Concorde, before taking up a full time role promoting the airline.

Roz appeared in print and TV advertisements all over the world, including a BA billboard that featured in the James Bond film “Moonraker”. Roz left BA in 1982 to pursue a career in television.

Chutzpah & Chutzpah – BA & Saatchi

In 1983, everything changed. As part a radical plan to turn around the airline’s fortunes, Saatchi & Saatchi secured the British Airways advertising account.

Businesses can learn a lot from magicians. And from their earliest days Saatchi & Saatchi understood and exploited the power of illusion to create a desired reality in the minds of clients, potential clients, suppliers, potential high talent employees and the media.

The “Manhattan” advert from 1983 was a radical departure.

This was the first major TV advertising campaigns Saatchi & Saatchi made for BA bearing the slogan “The World’s Favourite Airline”.

British Airways "The World's Favourite Airline", 1983
British Airways “The World’s Favourite Airline”, 1983

It was a quantum leap in ambition and production values. The whole campaign accounted for half of BA’s £25m annual advertising budget.

In a cinematic advert, directed by Richard Loncraine and produced by James Garrett & Partners, to the surprise of onlookers, the island of Manhattan is seen flying over suburban London as it is directed to land at London Heathrow Airport.

BA used the fact that the volume of passengers it flew across the Atlantic each year was greater than the population of Manhattan. By Saatchi & Saatchi’s own admission, they did not want to use shots of BA aircraft or cabin interiors.

Every year more people choose to fly with British Airways to more countries than with any other airline. In fact, every year we bring more people across The Atlantic than the entire population of Manhattan.

Although the advert is now seen as one of BA’s best, as the first major “conceptual” advertising campaign for BA, it received a mixed response at the time, even from within the advertising industry and the airline itself.

“A brilliant pyrotechnic execution” said Richard Kiernan, executive vice president at Grey Advertising to The New York Times, “but I don’t know what they are trying to tell me.”

“I don’t understand the darn thing,” said Robert E Jacoby, chairman of Ted Bates Worldwide. “It has such an emphasis on making British Airways memorable that it takes away from the message.”

The essence of the advert is a credible factual claim, presented in a bold and confident way. It was more a statement of intent, as well as fact. The airline knew it had work to do to meet its claim to be “The world’s favourite”. It was also not just aimed at passengers, but also City investors to prepare the airline for privatisation.

Speaking to The Times in 1984, BA’s then Marketing Director Jim Harris said:

We still have to prove to people that it is a justified claim and that is what we are setting out to do. We think there are many reasons why it is already true, but we would like it be absolutely beyond any doubt in most people’s minds. We want, literally, to be the first choice – the airline most people choose to fly.

In Part 2: We continue into the 1980s with BA’s first long-haul business class cabin “Super Club”, a revamped visual identity designed by Landor Associates and BA’s “Putting People First” training programme. Read more here.

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