United Airlines' big day is Wednesday but it is waiting until Sunday to celebrate, when it is betting on a big sports match to bring back the business. On 1 February it formally emerges from its three-year bankruptcy - the most expensive airline reorganisation ever - having eliminated 25,500 jobs, cut $7 billion in total spending, and attracted $3 billion in financing to fund its exit from bankruptcy court protection.
Starting Sunday, United is spending big in its bid to attract high-paying passengers, pouring dollars into the most expensive advertising arena of all, the Super Bowl of American football. These ads, which cost as much as $2.5 million for 30 seconds of airtime to reach about 130 million people, will run during the Sunday game, at about the most expensive time, just before the half-time break.
In an event watched as closely for its marketing, sponsorships and advertising as for its kicks, passes and touchdowns, presentations from companies such as Ford or Budweiser have traditionally made as much news as the game itself.
United is going at it with puppets and animation, using them to revive a theme it has used for a decade: a parent's business trip, from a child's point of view. These ads include "Daddy the Dragon Slayer" as a new theme. One advertising agency executive, Stuart d'Rozario of Fallon Worldwide, says: "A parent's business trip seen through a child's eyes seemed like rich creative territory." The ads use the music of Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue,' which United bought back in the 1980s in a then-unprecedented move for an airline.
The ads come days after United announced its 22nd consecutive quarter of deficits - $17 billion for the 2005 final period, including reorganisation costs - and a $21.2 billion annual net loss.
Ironic note: the football game will be played in Detroit, where Southwest Airlines, the Official Airline of the National Football League, will have billboard ads throughout the stadium. And that is a dragon United can slay only in its dreams.