Pan Am: How Wrong Advertising Contributed to the Final Blow

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

MILAN – History all too eloquently teaches us not to repeat the same mistakes. Fish, where the fish are, is the recipe for advertising (Stanley, 2011).

A brand is never for everyone and it’s always pivotal for it to find its audience, starting from the definition of the buyer persona.

That is an individual who is willing to experiment with a product and, potentially, to reiterate the purchase (Percy & Elliot, 2012).

After all, thinking of being for everyone is one of the mistakes made by Pan Am American World Airways (callsign: Clipper), an important page in the history of America’s aviation industry.

The airline was a sort of Emirates of the second half of the twentieth century, a glamorous company but also decidedly snobbish: many medium-large jet aircraft (Clipper was the launch customer of the 707 and 747), and high employees’ salary (Gandt, 2012).

Ted Quackenbush (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons

As proof of the analogy with Emirates, it’s likely that some of the Dubai-based carrier’s brand values ​​would also have belonged to Pan Am. In particular, Excellence, Innovation, and Reliability (Emirates, 2021).

Three values ​​that Pan Am has never abandoned and was summed up in one relevant slogan “The World’s Most Experienced Airline,” which can be translated into excellence, innovation, and therefore reliability.

But let’s take a step back in the years under scrutiny. “Every country has an airline. The world has Pan Am,” read a 1968 TV commercial from the air carrier (PeriscopeFilm, 1969).

Although globalization was just around the corner, not all the world was able to receive that message. Communication in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t follow a uniform path in all countries.

In other words, it wasn’t enough to create a good marketing campaign for TV, because the habit of commercial breaks on the small screen had not yet touched the entire globe.

Steve Fitzgerald (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons

It can be said that Pan Am was naive in some way, considering the American technological advance as a very effective weapon in spreading persuasive messages. This doesn’t mean that Pan Am commercials were poor, far from it.

The judgment on creativity is overall positive. “Pan Am makes the going great. Call a Pan Am Travel agent” is another call-to-action slogan broadcast in the same year. In 1968 the airline paid to hire 3,900 commercials, increasing them by 30 percent in 1969 (PeriscopeFilm, 1969).

On the other side, Pan Am underestimated out-of-home campaigns even in the U.S., despite the introduction of a dense highway network in the late 1950s.

How to miss a good opportunity! But the lack of interest in billboards became logical in the 1980s and 1990s when the innovation rewarded commercials on television, temporarily setting aside the OOH world (Vectormedia, 2019).

In America, where Pan Am had its headquarters – the famous Pan Am building in Manhattan – commercials began their journey in the 1940s (Mertes, 2021), but in Europe, for instance, the picture was completely different.

Steve Fitzgerald (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons

At the end of the 1960s, it was virtually inconceivable to think of an advertising campaign that would enter the homes of French, Italian, or Swiss families, where marketing campaigns were consolidated in the following decade.

In France, the first commercials were broadcast in 1968 and sponsored French products (Daragon, 2018). In Italy, ads during films, soap operas, and documentaries were avoided until 1980, concentrating everything on a ten-minute evening show called “Carosello” (Ortisi, 2019).

In Switzerland, the first spots for drinks and supermarkets appeared in 1965, and not without controversy (SRF 1, 2015).

The only context in which Pan Am commercials were screened smoothly was the film theatres, which had a youthful clientele, not even in the travel market. The mistake, here, was to truly believe in conquering under-30 customers as well. Pan Am made two memorable flyers aimed at young people:

“Learn a language this summer” with the image of a couple and “Take a Frenchman to lunch” showing a restaurant. Paradoxically, these campaigns that ended up in magazines, were welcomed by the wrong target, an adult audience, to whom the airline had dedicated other creative ideas (PeriscopeFilm, 1969).

Kambui, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It so happens that Pan Am’s publishing agency, J. W. Thompson, had a branch office in Paris but, as a report by Clark Eric Hultquist states, it was a limited success.

In fact, the agency was unable to pursue its objectives in Europe, mainly due to a lack of uniformity between the countries of the continent. In fact, Europe had turned out to be a completely different story than the U.S. (Hultquist, 2003).

J. W. Thompson began collaborating with Pan Am in 1942 (AM, 2019).

As described by a 1968 journal reserved for JWT staff, in 1961 Clark Holt became a representative of Pan Am and in 1967 became account supervisor for Pan Am’s North American Division, responsible for all Pan Am advertising placed in the U.S. and Canada (JWT, 1968).

The airline terminated the partnership with JWT in the seventies.

The ball, which became very heavy due to debts piled up, first passed to advertising agency N.W. Ayer in 1981, then to Doyle Dane Bernbach (former American Airlines agency), and finally, in 1982, to Wells, Rich, Greene founded by Mary Wells Lawrence (1928).

Udo K. Haafke (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons

“Pan Am. You Can’t Beat the Experience,” was the new slogan that appeared in two-page spreads in Pan Am’s best eight markets (Dougherty, 1982).

Obviously, the airline made other, bigger mistakes, but this analysis is focused on advertising. In the book “Skygods, the fall of Pan Am,” Robert Gandt writes that Pan Am was plagued by two major problems in the 1960s.

The first was to sort the cockpit: captains would have to understand the subtle difference between commanding and managing. The second problem was standardization, there wasn’t any.

The pilots flew as they saw fit. Furthermore, the recession that occurred in the U.S. in 1969-70 slowed down international air traffic, resulting in only +1.5 percent growth in the first year of the new decade.

Tourists stayed at home and businesses cut flight frequencies (Gandt, 2012).

Lars Söderström, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Besides the travel demand issue were the high maintenance costs of aircraft and operating expenses. The final blow came in 1988 with Lockerbie, the terrorist attack on Pan Am Flight 103 in which 270 people were killed.

Here, negative word-of-mouth caused Pan Am’s downfall: nobody wanted to fly an airline targeted by terrorists, or so it seemed to the public. In 1990, a year and a half before the airline’s bankruptcy, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the consequent Gulf War.

International flights suffered another drastic decline, the end of the Pan Am Empire.


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  • Elliot, S. (2005). TV Commercials Adjust to a Shorter Attention Span. The New York Times.
  • Emirates Group Security. (2021). Vision, Mission & Values.
  • Gandt, R. (2012). Skygods: The Fall of Pan Am. Black Star Productions.
  • Hultquist Clark Eric. (2003). Americans in Paris: The J. Walter Thompson Company in France, 1927-1968. Enterprise & Society. 4 (3), 471-501. Cambridge University Press.
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  • Mertes, A. (2021). The History of TV Commercials: From Super Bowl Ads to Funny Ads We Still Love Watching. Quality Logo Products.
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  • Percy, L. and Elliot, R. (2012). Strategic advertising management. Oxford University Press.
  • PeriscopeFilm. (1969). Pan Am Airlines 1969 Ad Campaign “Pan Am Makes the Going Great”
  • SRF 1 (2015). Video: Der erste Werbeblock am Schweizer TV.
  • Stanley, C. (2011). Improve your sales: Fish Where the Fish Are.
  • Vectormedia. (2019). The Endless Evolution of Outdoor Advertising.

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