A History Of British Airways Advertising – Part 4

A look at British Airways’ advertising over the past 50 years as BA addresses the aftermath of the 1990 Gulf War and tries to create a second London hub at Gatwick.

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"The Face" British Airways, 1989
“The Face” British Airways, 1989

Welcome to the fourth part of our look at some of the most influential and noteworthy BA advertising of the past 50 years.

We’re approaching the early 1990s as BA produces its best ever TV advertisement, the airline faces the aftermath of the 1990 Gulf War and tries to develop Gatwick airport in to a second London hub.

“The Face”

When the idea for what is possibly the greatest airline advertisement of all time was presented by Saatchi & Saatchi to BA, it is existed solely as a rough scribble on a single sheet of paper.

BA had asked Saatchi to prepare a new blockbuster advertising campaign. Saatchi presented two ideas, which by its own admission were fairly unremarkable, to an unimpressed client.

Saatchi then pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Out came a crumpled piece of paper bearing a sketch with the fairly unappealing sight of a disconnected smiling mouth, an eye, and a nose and a scribbled face.

But BA bought into the idea. And “The Face” was born.

The advert was directed by Hugh Hudson and filmed in Utah using local school children with a budget of £1m. Saatchi & Saatchi called on the choreographer of the Los Angeles Olympics opening ceremony to direct the movement of the participants. 

To the sound of “Aria On Air” by Malcolm Mclaren, the voice-over by 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 advert, images and sounds of aircraft are entirely absent. The advert was seen by 600 million people in 70 countries.

“Arrive Home”

Part of the genius of Saatchi & Saatchi’s work for BA was the recognition that the claim to be “The World’s Favourite Airline” would not be enough to win the hearts and minds of passengers.

The airline had to show a human side as well. 

As anyone who has ever done any significant amount of business travel knows very well, it is nowhere near as glamorous as people think it is. Very often, by far the best part of any business trip is returning home.

These three print adverts from the early 1990s featuring small moments of business passengers returning home to be with their families recognise that airlines getting people back home is just as important as the trip itself.

British Airways "Arrive Home" Advert (Figures)
British Airways “Arrive Home” Advert (Figures)
British Airways "Arrive Home" Advert (Quarterly Results)
British Airways “Arrive Home” Advert (Quarterly Results)
British Airways "Arrive Home" Advert (Presentation)
British Airways “Arrive Home” Advert (Presentation)

“Surprise, Surprise”

Long before the era of smartphones, social media and viral stunts, here’s a stunt developed Saatchi & Saatchi for BA in 1991.

A British Airways Holidays advert for romantic weekend breaks begins playing at a cinema before the screening of a film. 

Everything starts as expected featuring a couple on holiday in Paris. It all looks perfectly predictable with footage of a couple walking arm in arm along the River Seine in Paris with French accordion music playing in the background.

An actress planted in the cinema audience playing the character of Michelle then pretends to recognise the man on screen as her boyfriend, Nigel, cheating on her with the other girl, Amanda, on screen. 

Standing up, she starts shouting at the cinema screen to get his attention. He then recognises her in the audience and tries to explain away the situation to both her, and the girl he was in Paris with. 

The actress has none of it, dumps her boyfriend, and storms out of the cinema to applause from the audience. 

The voiceover then hastily wraps things up for BA Holidays.

The stunt was repeated in cinemas around the UK (although the actress was asked to leave in one cinema by a staff member unaware of the stunt) and, although it took approval from Lord King for it to be signed off initially, it generated significant press coverage for BA as well as winning numerous awards.

“The World’s Biggest Offer”

"The World's Biggest Offer" British Airways, March 1991
“The World’s Biggest Offer” British Airways, March 1991

How do you encourage passengers to fly again when demand for air travel has virtually ground to a halt?

That’s a question airlines around the world will be asking in the coming months.

One option is to go big.

In 1991, BA faced significantly reduced demand following the 1990 Gulf War. Then BA Chairman Lord King described the situation as “The engine of consumer demand did not just idle in neutral, it sputtered to a complete stop” and “now it needs a kick start”.

So BA hatched a plan.

It gave away in a ballot every single seat on every international flight to and from the UK, including on Concorde, on 23 April 1991. This was equivalent to around 50,000 free tickets. The 20,000 passengers who had already booked flights on that day would receive a voucher towards the purchase of a new flight.

Passengers could either apply in person at BA ticket offices or through newspaper entry forms. 

The promotion was kept under wraps until it broke on the same day around the world in March 1991 – an achievement in itself given this pre-dated the internet. 

Saatchi & Saatchi booked advertising space in newspapers in over 70 countries around the world for the promotion. Bogus adverts were placed with the newspapers and swapped at the eleventh hour. 

It is estimated that some 500 million people read about the offer, 200 million saw it on TV and 5.7 million people entered the ballot for a free flight.

There is of course no more powerful marketing tool than getting something for free. The promotion was considered a success with passenger numbers returning to their original level within 120 days.

"The World's Biggest Offer" British Airways, March 1991
“The World’s Biggest Offer” British Airways, March 1991
"The World's Biggest Offer" British Airways, March 1991
“The World’s Biggest Offer” British Airways, March 1991

“The Hub Without The Hubbub”

BA’s history at London Gatwick can be traced back to the original British Airways which was formed in 1935.

Whilst both BEA and BOAC had a presence at the airport, it wasn’t until BA acquired British Caledonian in 1988 and Dan-Air in 1992 did BA start to develop Gatwick into a second London hub.

BA transferred many routes to Latin America and Central & East Africa from Heathrow to complement those routes it inherited from British Caledonian. 

The aim was for Gatwick’s North Terminal to be “the hub without the hubbub”, as illustrated by this advert produced at great expense in a full replica of the North Terminal at Pinewood Studios.

By the late 1990s profitability at Gatwick was proving elusive. The dual London hub strategy wasn’t working. Gatwick was to be “de-hubbed”. BA began progressively switching long-haul routes and aircraft back to Heathrow.  It is now focused on point-to-point leisure traffic with a streamlined fleet of Boeing 777-200 and Airbus A320 aircraft.

In Part 5: BA uncannily predicts a dystopian post-apocalypse future, gives away free Concorde tickets to Lapland and upgrades Club Europe and Club World. Read more here.

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