Eerily Prescient United Ad from 1989 That Gives Recovery Route Map

There is not a lot more that can be said about the dismal failure of United Airlines that has not been said, except that it proves the necessity of empowering your staff to serve customers, and not suffer rules over common sense. The company’s management is clueless, and it is evidence of how Aeroflot-like American transport companies have become.

Ironically, United ran an ad back in 1989 that explained how a company could grovel and make amends after it had suffered a major mistake. It’s a lesson in humility and seriousness, and the spirit that is in the ad is the contrite spirit of a company that was broken, and needs to go back to its customers and make amends. The ad is the answer to their problems, in a 60 second message.

In the ad, United Airlines is the solution to the problem, in that the unnamed company in the ad needs to visit its customers. Extrapolate that situation today; United has to go back to all of its customers, and make an new compact with them. The compact? We will be be nice, and not enforce rules with gestapo tactics.

Below, the ad “Face to Face” with the immortal advertising words, “Well folks, somethings got to change! That’s why were going to set out for a face to face chat with every customer we have.”

The ad ends with: “Ben, where are you going? To visit that old friend who fired us this morning.”

Certainly there is much advice that will be given. But this time, advertising won’t fix it. Only actions will. Instead, you need to immediately change the way you do business. What will fix?

  1. Generous food and drinks. I am tired of stingy airlines. I mean, a sandwich costs about a buck to make, chips are maybe 50 cents wholesale; why not just bring back some food.
  2. Relax rules on ticketing. Empower gate agents to do all sorts of crazy things with ticket switches and changes. How much does a lost customer cost? When was it good business to be mean to customers with odd rules and pricing that is arcane and filled with tricks?
  3. Engage with customers. Look them in the eye and say hello and ask after their day.
  4. Relax baggage rules. Allow people to check baggage, free. Part of the stress of getting on a plane is the insane fight for a spot for your roll-on. This might cost United, but they need to do something, big, to get around the mess. People will not forget this easily.
  5. Give away freebies. I mean, these days cards, pens, and all manner of old airline freebies are cheap as getout to make in China. Does it cost, like 25 cents for a deck of cards in China, wholesale? And when you fly giant planes to China each day a gazillion times, shipping is free! Pens, stationary, games, cool United cups, cuddle blankets.
  6. Captains walk the plane please. This is a good tradition, and one that is also all about safety. I will never forget a Continental captain that walked a plane just after Sept. 11, saying hello to passengers and looking everyone in the eye with a smile.
  7. Be nice. Not much more to say here, except not nice or mean, get fired.


  • Garland Pollard

    J. Garland Pollard IV is editor/publisher of BrandlandUSA. Since 2006, the website has chronicled the history and business of America’s great brands.

1 Comment

  1. What you are proposing could actually turn this whole episode into a plus for United. I can imagine an ad campaign consisting of a heartfelt apology then explaining that they realize a big part of why it occurred came from getting away from what flying used to be. No longer must their passengers fork over pocket change for a snack. No longer must you pay for a blanket . . . Heck, if they try your idea they likely will gain market share instead of losing it!

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