Selling the friendly skies
American stewardesses and the making of an iconic advertising campaign.
During the Mad Men era, virtually every heavy-hitting advertising agency was based in New York City. But hundreds of miles away, the boutique Leo Burnett Agency on East Randolph Street was proving itself a formidable competitor. In 1963, the Leo Burnett Agency was invited to bid for one of the nation’s most coveted ad accounts: United Airlines. Leo Burnett, the acclaimed ad- man behind the small Chicago agency, corralled his top creative team. They poured themselves into brainstorming sessions—analyzing United’s image, strategizing the pitch, and waxing philosophical about the future of air travel. Later that year, a cadre of United executives in pinstriped suits convened in a smoky boardroom to hear the admen’s pitch. The Burnett team laid it out: United was the General Motors of air travel—“professional, official-looking” and “a little stuffy and cold—coldly efficient, with a production-line attitude.” Then came the real blow: the ad team called United “stodgy” and “dull.” William Patterson, United’s president since its beginnings in 1934, prided himself on the airline’s hard-won reputation for reliability, but he knew that United desperately needed to sell more seats.
He also knew that a stodgy image was a death knell for a corporation—after all, this was the 1960s, when youth culture ruled the American cultural landscape. The trouble with United’s image, according to Burnett’s team, was its lack of “friendliness, warmth and humanness and ... fun.” Burnett’s team summed it up by quoting a male passenger: “United has a reputation for great dependability, reliability and soundness ... all the wonderful scientific advances known to the field of electronics and computers. However, they ain’t got no sex appeal.” In 1965, United hired the Burnett agency to develop a new image for the airline.
From 1953 to 1968, the image of TWA stewardesses in the airline’s advertising evolved from hearty meals (above) to adult beverages (below).
By the time Leo Burnett won the United account, he was in his 70s and he had long since made a name for himself in the world of advertising. Burnett had grown up in small-town Michigan and did not exactly have the look of a savvy Madison Avenue ad-man—he wore a crumpled suit and heavy glasses with a dark frame. A former accountant, Burnett was a quiet man and an awkward public speaker known for mumbling. He worked contentedly for several small Midwestern ad agencies and was reluctant to take the risks necessary to start his own agency. Finally, unable to stand the onslaught of “dull advertising,” he struck out on his own. In 1936, at the age of 44, Burnett sold his house and borrowed on his insurance to start an agency in Chicago. His plan for the new agency emphasized the importance of risk-taking creativity. Burnett’s approach: focus on style and creating an image around the product. He would go on to develop major icons such as the Marlboro Man, Morris the Cat, and the Pillsbury Doughboy. For Burnett, creativity was king.
Meanwhile, during the 1950s, the large, old-school ad agencies on Madison Avenue had started focusing on research. In the postwar consumer boom, advertising had become big business and agencies began concentrating on studying “unique selling propositions” instead of creating interesting copy or artwork. This method aggravated those who considered advertising an art. The New York copywriter Bill Bernbach declared that the big ad agencies had it all wrong: “Advertising is not a science, it is persuasion, and persuasion is an art.” Bemoaning that ad agencies were turning creative people into “mimeograph machines,” Bernbach founded a new agency called Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) to buck this trend.
By the 1960s, Burnett in Chicago and Bernbach in New York were at the vanguard of major changes in the advertising industry. Among these was the advent of the “creative revolution,” which gave “creatives” (art directors and copywriters) more influence in the management of ad agencies, and the look and feel of ads. The emphasis shifted from science and research to art. Unconstrained by established bureaucracy and conventional attitudes, Bernbach and Burnett hired stables of young creatives eager to have an impact on the advertising world with imaginative ads.
The creative revolution in advertising occurred in tandem with major social and cultural changes sweeping across America during the 1960s. Ads in the 1950s promised a chicken in every pot, smiling white families, and suburban conformity, but this imagery began losing cultural currency as a new consumer mood arose. By the mid-1950s, mainstream America was awash in criticism of this blossoming culture of abundance. Sociologists, novelists, and public intellectuals bemoaned increasingly bureaucratic corporate environments, conformity, and empty consumerism in popular books such as John Keat’s The Crack in the Picture Window (1957), Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957), William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956), and Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1955). Jack Kerouac and other beat poets also popularized critiques of mass consumption.
The youth counterculture heralded antimaterialism and antiestablishment values—eschewing elitism and big business. Corporations were vilified as purveyors of rampant, vapid consumerism. The antiestablishment mood became a cause célèbre as rebellion spread across colleges. By the late 1960s, this countercultural current had spilled into mainstream American culture and was now used to sell products, especially by advertising teams who saw it as a way to add an aura of youth to ads.
The friendly skies campaign inched from 1966’s family-friendly pitch (above) to a more come-hither ad in 1968 (below).
While advertising agencies had not considered teenagers a valuable demographic before World War II, now they deemed young people economically vital to business revenue in general. Young people between the ages of 13 and 22 had control of some $25 billion in discretionary spending. And youth had an appeal that extended far beyond the youth market proper.
“You had the feeling youth was taking over the world ... and the advertising industry was part of the total change going on in culture,” recalled Mary Wells, one of Bernbach’s protégés who became an influential advertising executive. “In 1967, so many people wanted to look and feel totally hip.” The advertising industry considered youth an enticing consumer fantasy they could offer to older Americans. In 1967, Madison Avenue Magazine quoted an adman: “The youth market has become the American market. It now includes not only everyone under 35, but most people over 35.”
Ads needed new strategies to meet this shifting cultural climate. They began to focus on whatever was cool, young, sexually liberated, and rebellious. Ironically, ads picked up the slogans, symbols, icons, and themes of the youth revolution that reviled conformity and consumerism. They often focused on cultivating an “honest,” less “snobby,” and “informal” tone, which reflected the youth rebellion against the establishment and elitism. This new tone became the hallmark of the creative revolution. Even the middle-American stalwart Dodge created the “Dodge rebellion” in the 1960s.
Many creatives at the newer ad agencies considered the counterculture not an enemy that potentially undermined consumer culture, but rather a kindred ally in their struggles against creativity-quashing aspects of old business culture such as hierarchy, procedure, and overblown organization. The ads of the 1960s also adopted a different visual style. While previous advertising had centered on the “hard sell” with long text descriptions of the product, focusing on differentiating the product from its competitors, the new style was minimalist with simple copy and unassuming humor—for example, the influential ads for the Volkswagen Beetle with plain, serif-free headlines and concise copy. The campaign picked up on youth counterculture by selling the car as a way to eschew conformity.
A pioneer in the creative revolution, Leo Burnett wanted to bring that level of innovation to United’s image. In confidential internal corporate memos, Burnett set his creative sights high for the United campaign: “change the battleground” of airline advertising with ads as innovative as the Volkswagen campaign. In a memo to his creative team, he suggested they take a similar tack in shifting United from its “official” and “stuffy” image to a more “personal, human” image.
His creative team rolled into United’s headquarters with a bang—bursting with shocking marketing ideas for the airline. “We looked around the table and saw the senior people at United with their mouths screwed up like pickles. And, I thought, ‘Oh, this one is going to be tough,’” said Dick Stanwood, Burnett’s creative director for the United campaign. Stanwood realized his creative team did not have free rein with the campaign. The men at United were largely older, conservative executives who had their own entrenched notions about the airline’s image and advertising in general. They were put off by the ad team’s presentation. United’s executives were reluctant to change and the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed creatives at Burnett would have to find a way to diplomatically sweet-talk them into radically reinventing United’s image.
Plus, Leo Burnett wanted to please Patterson. A veteran in the airline industry, Patterson was in his 60s when Burnett’s agency took over the airline’s ad campaign. He had built United from the ground up, and he was proud of its dependability. He had a reputation as a “smart, savvy man who kn[ew] his business,” according to Phil Schaff, a creative director at Burnett. Leo Burnett considered Patterson a “down-to-earth” man with “integrity.” In an internal memo to his staff, Burnett mentioned that he did not want to upset Patterson by pitching a sleazy campaign and advised his team to tread carefully.
Stanwood saw the conflict between Burnett’s creative team and United executives as a generational divide: United executives had “grown up in a different time and were not ready for this new attack on the business,” Stanwood said in an interview. The “desire for change,” according to Stanwood, came very much from Burnett’s team. This tension between United’s conservative executives and Burnett’s creative team would become a persistent, thorny thicket that would shape the outcome of United’s ad campaign. Burnett’s team decided to back off and brainstorm a new tack. “We didn’t want the United folks to be too badly jolted,” said Stanwood.
In the early 1970s, Southwest Airlines stewardesses walked the aisles in miniskirts and go-go boots.
The first bone of contention: stewardesses. Stewardesses were critical to airline ticket sales and the Burnett team planned to use them as the linchpin of United’s new image. But United’s senior vice president of marketing, Bob Johnson, a bulwark of traditionalism, cautioned Leo Burnett to develop a respectable campaign—particularly when it came to the use of stewardesses. In a briefing, Johnson laid down United’s policy. Stewardesses were “sacred cows” and their special position had always been recognized in United’s advertising. According to Johnson, “Until recently all girls in UAL advertising were, in fact, stewardesses and UAL tries to convey the impression in its stewardesses of ‘the girl next door, your daughter.’”
While United executives clung to the wholesome stewardess image, other major airlines were radically reinventing their stewardesses as sex icons. During the 1950s, ads featured all-American girl-next-door stewardesses feeding bottles to babies and serving hearty meals to businessmen; by the mid-1960s, ads for Braniff and other airlines began introducing a beguiling new stewardess who performed in-flight stripteases. This bombshell stewardess dressed in short shorts, fishnets, and go-go boots rapidly ascended to fame as a mythical American sex icon.
By instructing Burnett to treat stewardesses with caution, Johnson was partly the mouthpiece for Patterson. Patterson felt a special responsibility to stewardesses, since he was credited with hiring the first female flight attendants in 1930. Moreover, Patterson’s daughter, Patricia, had also worked briefly as a stewardess during the 1950s, so Patterson was personally invested in maintaining a wholesome stewardess image in United’s advertising. “Dad was very conservative and he didn’t want the girls bothered. He referred to them as his ‘young ladies,’” said Patterson’s daughter. “And I became a stewardess, so he had to be protective! He was a gentleman and he was very protective of women. Girls in short skirts might have been harassed by smart-alecky men and he wouldn’t have wanted that.”
Aware of Patterson’s gentlemanly ways, Burnett promised not to resort to “slick, hip” images or to make stewardesses look smutty. In other words, the agency pledged to steer clear of youth-derived trends. In attempts to win United’s executives over, Burnett assured them that the campaign would retain United’s established character, which the agency described as “size, efficiency and trust-worthiness.” But while United’s big business image was an asset during the 1950s, it had, in fact, become a liability by the 1960s—and Leo Burnett knew it.
The era’s broad anticorporate sentiment dovetailed with another critical issue in the airline industry: air travel was in the midst of a major transition from being an elite mode of travel to becoming transportation for the masses. Airlines were expanding at record speed. In 1965, airlines began preparing for an influx of new wide-bodied Boeing 747s, known as jumbo jets. The new Boeing 747 would carry up to 490 passengers (more than twice the capacity of its predecessor, Boeing’s 707 jet) and have a longer range of up to 8,300 miles. United’s order for new jumbo jets in 1965 would double the airline’s seat capacity by 1969.
Everyone involved knew this meant that United desperately needed to fill seats. Anticipating that the doubled seating capacity of jumbo jets would result in huge financial losses if the number of air travelers remained stable, the Burnett team emphasized the importance of a long-range campaign that would rapidly expand the air travel market. Air travel had long been reserved for the wealthy and business travelers, but with the coming of jumbo jets, Burnett pushed for innovative ad strategies to transform air travel into just another consumer service available to the broad middle class. The air travel market would, in fact, expand enormously during the 1960s—more than tripling its passenger load over the course of the decade.
United needed a savvy advertising strategy to handle this complex transition to mass transportation. Airlines had already won business travelers, but personal travelers often still traveled by car, bus, train, or ship. While airlines in the jet age had started directing more advertising dollars into attracting the personal travel market, most carriers were reluctant to invest heavily in it since businessmen constituted the majority of the domestic air travel market until 1963. In 1964, however, the tide turned: marketing surveys reported that the personal travel market on domestic flights accounted for a higher proportion of passengers than business travelers. For the first time, airline executives became interested in winning the mass market—predominantly personal travelers. Leo Burnett suggested that these personal travelers avoided flying because they felt that flying was for the wealthy; thus, he recommended “de-formalizing” United’s image.
Burnett’s team was already keenly aware that young people were becoming airlines’ most crucial emerging market. Young people were traveling more and, at the time, fliers were loyal to one airline, so luring the youth market could mean winning these new fliers for their whole lives. Plus, since youth set the trends for the broad masses during the 1960s, the Burnett team believed that poaching aspects of the youth culture could help market United to older Americans who still wanted to feel young and hip. But the vexing question remained: how could the agency develop a youth-oriented campaign without offending the old guard at United?
In 1965, when Braniff unveiled a striking, youth-oriented campaign featuring stewardesses in skin-tight Pucci uniforms with brightly colored, psychedelic-inspired prints, the Burnett team was still trying to convince United executives to take a radical new approach. The Burnett team worried that smaller airlines, such as Braniff, which took a more “relaxed attitude” in its advertising, would win these new young fliers. The term “relaxed” was a code word for language and style derived from the youth counterculture scene. But United’s executives were still reluctant to take an advertising approach derived too much from youth trends. So, the Burnett agency was still gingerly navigating ways to achieve a youth-oriented campaign without eliciting too much criticism from United’s senior executives.
In 1956, with a skeptical audience, a United Airlines stewardess gave smile instructions.
Most airline ads blurred together, according to the Burnett agency, because they took the same tack—emphasizing “glamour and excitement.” The agency criticized this strategy, noting that confidence was the basic underpinning necessary to sell an airline and that without it all the “fancy food, drinks and pretty stewardesses in the world” would not help. Burnett professed that the agency would not turn United’s image into something it was not: “a glamorous airline for the jet set.” Instead, Burnett proposed that United “take glamour by the tail and twist it.”
In November 1965, months after Braniff introduced Pucci uniforms and its infamous “Air Strip” ad, which featured a stewardess removing layers of her uniform as a striptease, Burnett’s team introduced United’s new slogan: “Come fly the friendly skies of United.” It was largely designed to appeal to the youth market, middle-class individuals, and women by assuming a friendlier image. For Stanwood, who directed Burnett’s 40-person team on the United campaign, the slogan represented a “drastic change, from an older airline to a younger, more with-it airline.” In a confidential letter to his close friend, the Chicago columnist Sydney Harris, on August 23, 1965, Leo Burnett wrote that “everyone involved seemed to like the phrase ‘come fly the friendly skies of United,’ which seems to have a nice invitational quality about it, which we could live with if we can make ‘friendly skies’ mean something beyond the weather.” They did. The slogan was a success. The “friendly skies” campaign was not intended to carry sexual connotations, though it would later become a euphemism for stewardesses’ sexual availability.
The “friendly skies” campaign, said the agency’s proposal, was designed to import “warmth,” “softness,” and “friendliness” into United’s image. “At the creative table, the ad team aimed to show as much smiling humanness as chrome-steel efficiency. ... Machines are cold. People are warm. Let us show the public our warm ‘good-guy’ genuine concern side, as well as the efficient side they already appreciate in us.” The Burnett team aimed to convey that United was “cold-blooded about operating the ship and getting you there safely,” but also interested in “comfort.” The creative team brainstormed: “a ‘down-to-earth’ airline. Our pilots are cool-headed. Our stewardesses are warm-hearted. We think the balance is fine.”
The campaign used stewardesses to import missing qualities into United’s image. The stewardess was the fulcrum of United’s new “less formal” image and her inherently feminine qualities (such as “warmth” and “friendliness”) became the centerpiece of the campaign. United exploited broader American gender stereotypes to project an image of personalized service and a caring corporation. The ads used gendered language to code technology, science, and pilots as “cold,” “efficient,” and masculine. Serving as a foil, stewardesses imported “feminine” qualities into the corporate environment through “friendly” service; they “softened” technology and represented “warm-hearted concern.”
Braniff’s eyebrow raising 1965 campaign raised or lowered the bar for airline ads, depending on your perspective.
Burnett’s team also suggested modifying both the stewardess image and service style. They advised United to give stewardesses permission to “talk about most anything they wanted with passengers” and to have a “much more relaxed air.” Plus, under Burnett’s direction, United began to hire younger stewardesses to lure younger passengers. Developing a “friendly” and “less formal” United was important in several ways. First, it transformed United’s image from a reliable, big business into a caring corporation—a critical shift in the 1960s. This image of corporate caring promised to mediate the impact of serving a mass market with less personalized service as air travel transformed into mass transportation. Within the broader context of corporate expansion, the Burnett team became invested in selling an image of personalized service aloft.
This strategy was part of a larger advertising trend that reflected the cultural milieu of the 1960s. As mass consumption was popularly vilified in American culture, ads were increasingly designed to assuage broad cultural anxieties about environments of impersonal mass consumption. In the 1960s, advertisements were transformed from formal, impersonal presentations of specific consumer goods into messages of corporations as caring. Harris, who offered input on the United campaign, summed up this sentiment in a letter to Burnett on air travel: “What we most resent is being treated as an anonymous mass. ... In this depersonalized, automatic age, the individual perpetually feels a threat to his identity and his integrity.”
The Burnett team found innovative means to tap broader American cultural shifts in ways that met United’s need for a caring corporate image. By shifting United’s image from a big, impersonal corporation to a more informal, “friendly” organization, Burnett subtly adopted an advertising strategy that reverberated with larger American cultural trends in the 1960s—particularly, the critique of big business and mass consumer culture. “Friendliness” made the airline’s corporate persona less big business, which resonated with the youth-derived mores of the era without violating its executives’ scruples against sexualized stewardesses. By the late 1960s, though, United’s ads began featuring stewardesses in minidresses with parted lips and bedroom eyes. As the counterculture blossomed and younger professionals rose through the ranks of the airline and its ad agency, United’s “friendly” campaign at last evolved into erotic invitation.
Adapted with permission from The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). Victoria Vantoch, AB’97, is a journalist and historian whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and the Los Angeles Times. The author of The Threesome Handbook, she has a doctorate in history from the University of Southern California and has received research grants including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a NASA Aerospace History Fellowship.