Loading ...

Quick, name an airline campaign. A memorable airline campaign with great creative. If you're a veteran in the business, you'll remember George Lois's Braniff ads, in which unlikely celebrity seatmates agreed on the airline's virtues. And you might not have forgotten missteps like National Airlines's 1972 "I'm Cheryl, Fly Me" campaign, which introduced the word "sexist" into our collective vocabulary.

Most ads in the category, though, blend into a mental blur of photographs of planes on tarmacs or flying over the clouds.

United Airlines has been doing things differently.

In 2002, when many people were still thinking it was time to stay home, United declared, "It's Time to Fly." And they've been doing so ever since, in an unprecedented way: with illustration. With dreamy, evocative illustrations like Mara Cerri's "calm" couple levitating near a swimming pool, it's a refreshing way to advertise the satisfaction of finding the lowest fare.

The campaign encompasses print ads in major business magazines and big-city newspapers, TV commercials, Web sites, outdoor boards, airport posters, tradeshows, ticket jackets and more. So far, 40 artists have contributed 175 illustrations, mostly paintings done in traditional media: oil, gouache and tempera. Signed off with the red and blue "double U" mark designed by Saul Bass in 1973 (and updated by Pentagram in 1997 and Fallon Worldwide in 2004), it's a total brand identity for a 55,000-employee entity that operates 3,200 flights a day to 210 destinations in 30 countries.

Browse Projects

Click on an image to view more from each project

"It's Time to Fly" began at Fallon Worldwide in Minneapolis, where Bob Barrie and Stuart D'Rozario were art director and creative director on the account. It had been just fifteen months since United Flight 175 was flown into the World Trade Center, and Flight 93, en route to Washington, DC, was brought down in rural Pennsylvania. United was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, from which it would not emerge for four years.

"All airlines were really hurting then," recalls Barrie, "but we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. It was time to celebrate the majesty of flying. It was time for United to find its wings again and for passengers, who'd been hunkering down, to fly, too." The first "Time to Fly" commercial depicted a businessman preparing for an out-of-town interview; he realized he was wearing mismatched shoes, but got the job anyway. It had a voice-over by Robert Redford, who, according to Barrie, was both a fan of animation and a loyal United flyer. Introduced during Super Bowl XXXVIII, the spot helped United find a new voice. "We knew we wouldn't get ahead by saying, 'we fly to more cities than everybody else,' or 'we're on time.' And we couldn't fool anyone by suggesting that flying was easy," says D'Rozario. "But we could do beautiful, emotional work using a variety of interesting talent." In this case, in addition to one of the world's best loved actors, hand-drawn animation by Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, who'd previously directed and animated the winner of the Palme d'Or for best short subject at the Cannes Film Festival.

Barrie and D'Rozario left Fallon to found Barrie D'Rozario Murphy (BD'M) in 2006, recruiting David Murphy, then president of Saatchi & Saatchi LA, to be co-president. In March 2007, the start-up, established as a cross-disciplinary advertising and marketing company, was selected as United's agency of record. "We wanted to continue and deepen our commitment to the campaign that Bob and Stuart were instrumental in creating," comments Dennis Cary, United's senior vice president of marketing. BD'M now has 30 employees, and the client roster includes electronics superstore Best Buy, nanotechnology and energy company Applied Materials and the Sunset Marquis Hotel-"clients for whom we can do a large body of work in 100 different applications," according to D'Rozario. United does not reveal advertising budgets, but TNS Media Intelligence reports $24 million in media spending for 2007. Some aspects of the campaign, such as promotional mailings to frequent flyers, are handled through the Chicago office of Arc World-wide, a 40-office direct marketing unit of Leo Burnett/Publicis.

"It's Time to Fly" has been largely targeted to the frequent traveler in first and business class, considered the heart of the airline's customer base. Thus, the emphasis on luxury amenities like seats that turn into flat beds in international business class. One set of ads introduces five more inches of legroom in coach. Both could be rather mundane executions, in different hands. Instead, enhancing the messages is an international roster of illustrators, including Nicoletta Ceccoli, Mara Cerri and Stefano Morri (Italy), Haydn Cornner and Emily Twomey (England), Olaf Hajek (Germany), Ana Juan (Spain), Tim Zeltner (Canada) and Chris Buzelli, Mark Ulriksen and Jaime Zollars (USA).

"With illustration, you can do just about anything your mind can imagine," Barrie asserts. "It's emotional. People get wrapped up in it. It's more symbolic than photography. You can insert yourself in the experience. The whole campaign is about optimism. It's a celebration of people who get on planes every day and get things done." Adds Cary, "As the voice-over says, 'Where you go in life is up to you, there's one airline that can take you there.' Our illustrations say to our customers, you are the one that goes out and makes it happen-professionally and personally-and we are the right airline partner, playing our small role to enable you to achieve your aspirations."

If there is a thread that connects all the illustrations, it's a sense of whimsy-as in the most compelling, poetic children's book illustration. "High-end, whimsical fantasy, friendly and accessible. That's the United look and feel," points out Kim Witczak, BD'M's art buyer, who manages the process of seeing the art through from concept to finish. Clearly there must be something deep within even the most sophisticated traveler that yearns to reconnect with the safety and comfort of a childhood bedtime story. Especially when crossing the Atlantic at night.

The whole campaign is about optimism. It's a celebration of people who get on planes every day and get things done." —Bob Barrie

Music is also a key element. United's theme song, George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," was licensed from the Gershwin estate 30 years ago. In 2008, it soared to new heights in five commercials that debuted during the Olympics. Art directed by James Zucco, the commercials evoke Disney's 1940 classic Fantasia, in which Mickey Mouse and an army of brooms wordlessly bring "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" to life. Trivers and Meyers, a Los Angeles music house, created original scores for each spot. "'Rhapsody' is a great brand asset," maintains D'Rozario. "It's instantly recognizable so you don't have to wait for the logo to appear, and it gives us flexibility to score different arrangements. In fifteen minutes there are all kinds of emotions: happy, sad, busy, quiet." For example, "Heart" by Jamie Carie of DUCK Studios uses paper cutouts to poignantly depict an architect leaving her heart with her husband before flying to Europe for a presentation. Its "'Rhapsody' is a piano duet by Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang. An Indonesian gamelan player performs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in "Sea Orchestra" by Shy the Sun, in which a lobster conducts an ensemble of musical instrument-sea creatures. "Crossing the ocean will never be the same," the narrator says. The spots are produced using techniques ranging from paper puppetry and clay to live-action photography, matte paintings and computer animation.

Illustrators and animators are chosen in a number of ways and with deep appreciation for their craft. "The art directors and I are always looking for new people," says Witczak. "We look at magazines like the CA Illustration Annual and the Fresh column, talk to reps, search out the best in children's books and animated short subjects." Witczak, who was art buyer on the BMW account at Fallon, professes a lifelong love of illustration. "Working on this account is like curating an exhibition of the best in world illustration," she says. Barrie is also an illustration buff. "I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, which was known for cheese and the Packers," he reminisces. "My dad was a commercial artist with a local agency. He subscribed to The New Yorker magazine and they were always around the house. I was inspired by every cover. That's the secret of how we judge illustrations here today. Would this make a good New Yorker cover? Is it conceptual? Is it beautiful? Is it classic?" New Yorker artists Ana Juan and Mark Ulriksen are contributors to the campaign.

BD'M has developed its own paradigms for working with illustrators: All assignments come through Witczak, and the direction is loose and open, based on keywords or phrases that sum up the concept or feeling to be evoked: "bed disguised as airline seat" or "entertainment in the sky." There are never specific instructions like, "We want an illustration that shows such-and-such."

All the illustrators describe the experience of working on the campaign as "a dream." Or, as Jaime Zollars—who painted Cinderella's coach flying over a fantasy landscape to illustrate "The first airline seat that's something of a destination itself"—puts it, "too good to be true." Zollars, an entrepreneurial artist who recently relocated to Baltimore from Los Angeles, says that she'd expected to do a thousand revisions and end up with a piece made generic by too many cooks. "The final art is remarkably close to my initial concept," she notes, "and the few minor changes spoke directly to clarity of concept."

"The ideas for interpretation gave me just the right spark," says Haydn Cornner, who's known for his books about dreams and symbols. To evoke the headline, "Miles in the sky, a halibut reaches its full potential," he painted a chef balancing a fish and a glass of white wine in the sky. "Quite often advertising art directors steer toward stereotypes, then insist upon endless tweaks, often resulting in a weaker image," Cornner says, "but Kim gave much freer reign, and in my opinion got a far better image."
Fréderique Bertrand echoes: "Wanda Nowak, my agent, forwarded a request to think about ideas for 'comfort' and 'more legroom.' It was my own interpretation that BD'M was expecting, a very precious request. My contribution-feet and legs stretched out over a family already enjoying their vacation-was based on my own sensibility. It was exciting to work on these projects because of this chance to propose very personal works."

"With only a suggestion of the subject 'flying flat,' I was told to give a lyrical interpretation," says Nicoletta Ceccoli, who's won international prizes for more than twenty illustrated books. She painted a flat fuzzy slipper flying over the clouds next to a somewhat jealous high heel. Adds her friend Stefano Morri, who depicted a woman curled up kittenlike over the ocean, "I was told, 'be imaginative, metaphoric.' This allows one to have a wide open view and work with serenity."

The final art is remarkably close to my initial concept, and the few minor changes spoke directly to clarity of concept." —Jaime Zollars

Clouds, sky, lyrical landscapes? Could this be an Italian Renaissance in illustration? Perhaps. "It's funny that all three Italian illustrators involved [Cerri, Morri and myself] are friends," says Ceccoli, "and we all come from the same art school in Urbino, the heart of the Italian Renaissance, a bit far from the modern world, a wonderful art place that influenced us a lot. So maybe our background gave us something in common to look at things."

San Francisco-based Mark Ulriksen, whose witty, urbane illustrations appear in many major magazines, has taken things in a different direction: murals that depict the history of the Chicago Bears and the city of Chicago for the new United Club at Soldier Field. "I was only asked to 'make them cool,' my favorite type of direction," he says, noting that this was one of the most diffcult yet rewarding assignments of his career, requiring multiple portraits of football players in historic uniforms, multiple approvals and a 24/7 schedule for five weeks. Nevertheless, he calls the process of working with BD'M "fantastic." In a similar vein, Chris Buzelli of New York created a series of sports banners and "dragonscapes" using symbols from Chinese culture and fables. During the Olympics his work decorated airports including United's Beijing terminal, and his "koi-dragon" with fish and waterfall was featured on movie screens in first class cabins and on ticket envelopes. Buzelli and his rep Jen Vaughn worked with Jay Paonessa at Arc Worldwide.

About half the illustrators have reps, and those who do extol the rep's role in the process, including marketing their portfolios, negotiating contracts and schedules-even handling time differences and acting as translator for those whose English is a little shaky. "Sorting out all the boring paperwork, leaving me free to create the art," is how Olaf Hajek describes the role of New York-based Bernstein & Andriulli, who also represents Haydn Cornner. Tim Zeltner, who's worked on ads, murals and destination posters, praises Suzanne McColl from i2i Art. "I'm a traditional artist and she keeps my hands free to paint," he says. His posters of world cities that United flies to are for sale on gallery Web sites.

"The visibility I've gained from this campaign has been super, it's like having an advertisement for myself," adds Zeltner. Zollars is equally enthusiastic: "I happened to be flying to Chicago with United last month, rushing to catch my connecting flight," she says, "and looked up to unexpectedly see a huge poster of one of my images. O'Hare had a gallery of fantastic posters by an assortment of artists. It was so exciting, I had to buy a disposable camera to get a few pictures. The display made me wonder why illustration is not used by more companies to convey a feeling or abstract idea associated with their product."

Top management at United, according to Cary, believes it's important to fly in the lead, to take risks in order to make an impact. "The response has been overwhelmingly positive, as evidenced by the campaign's longevity," says Barrie, adding that the campaign has been nominated for an Emmy Award and won a Gold Effie for marketing effectiveness. "Two commercials were in the American Institute of Commercial Producers show and became part of the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection, and Stuart Elliott of the New York Times gave 'Sea Orchestra' a gold during the Olympics," he says.

Amidst cutthroat competition, United continues to expand the campaign. The newest piece is the mobile initiative. Text UNITED to 42107 and you can view a 3-D video, with "Rhapsody" played on the vibraphone, of the flat seat you'll be dreaming sweetly in, should you be lucky enough to next cross the Atlantic in United's first or business class. ca

Ellen Shapiro (visualanguage.net) is a graphic designer and writer based in Irvington, New York. The author of The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients (Allworth Press) and nearly 200 magazine articles about design, illustration, photography and visual culture around the world, Shapiro has been contributing to CA since 1991.

With a free Commarts account, you can enjoy 50% more free content
Create an Account
Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber or have a Commarts account?
Sign In

Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber?
Sign In