#TBT: Alaska’s 1980s TV campaign stands the test of time

A businessman flags down a cab for a ride to the airport.  As the lethargic cabbie asks ‘what airline,’ and learns it’s Alaska, a high-speed chase ensues, while the businessman, sliding back and forth as the cab hugs the turns, yells, “but airlines never leave on time!” Arriving at the airport, the flight has already left.

Alaska Airlines seized upon the humor of travel pains in its TV ads from the 1980s, and if you’re in the Seattle area , you may see a throwback to what the airline called its ‘Atrocities’ campaign, re-airing on TV this winter.

The spots were the product of Chicago-based director Joe Sedelmaier, of Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” fame and Alaska Airlines’ Seattle-based ad agency at the time, Livingston & Co. The humorous ads won the agency numerous honors. Thirty years later, they’ve stood the test of time. Customers and employees still remember their favorite and several, including “Pay Toilet,” have been memorialized in many “Top Commercials” and “Funniest Ads” ratings over the years.

Another ad showed a bespectacled businessman nervously shuffling in an airplane aisle looking for change to use the bathroom. “Pay Toilet” was one of Alaska’s endearing ads from yesteryear, which poked fun at how far airlines would go to save (or make) a buck.

But a favorite among staff at the time was “Talking Ticket,” where an automated robo-agent asked for baggage, and when the slightly dumbfounded customer told the screen he didn’t have any, a whoosh of air sucked his trousers right off. The quirky commercials were unlike any other airline’s at the time, says Jim Copacino, the creative director on the campaign for Livingston & Co.

“Alaska was the first airline to tell the truth about flying, while other airlines were glamorizing it.” The key element was that they were just tongue-in-cheek enough not to offend the competition or the flying public. Airlines had already begun to cut back services and, in truth, flying was just not fun anymore.

Among the ads’ charms was some of the goofiest-looking actors you’d ever seen (think bar scene in Star Wars.) The young comedian Andy Dick had a bit part, but most actors looked like everyday people.

While the ads were fun and frivolous, they had a strong strategic underpinning. Alaska, as a young airline, was beginning its expansion into Southern California and Arizona. It was a fresh upstart and was offering a better product—better food, newer airplanes and friendly, caring employees. The ads showed how, at Alaska, things were different. And the airline got noticed.

Overheard in marketing meetings at Alaska Airlines during the time were hushed whispers of, “Did we predict the future, has the industry finally become what we’ve made fun of all these years?”

But while Alaska has changed its tune to match its low-fare competitors, it fortunately has not resorted to pay toilets, and won’t steal the pants off you with an autobot machine. And employees pride themselves in the airline’s industry-leading on-time performance. Something that cabbies today heed notice of.

An Alaska Airlines employee since 1986, Marianne Lindsey was the advertising manager for the carrier from 1991 to 1998 and worked alongside Jim Copacino and the Livingston & Co agency. Today she is a manager in Corporate Communications. Alaska Airlines’ ad agency today, Wong Doody, of Seattle, is comprised of several Livingston & Co. veterans. The agency has recently resurrected the historic commercials. Keep an eye out for them in Seattle.

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8 Comments on “#TBT: Alaska’s 1980s TV campaign stands the test of time

  1. I remember these! And yep, they stand up (with the exception of the meal service ::grin:: )

  2. Great idea! My family still talks about those commercials. Need to bring back “Pay Toilet”.

  3. We should run all of them. I’ve thought that for years…

  4. Along with Rainier Beer television ads, Alaska Airlines broughts us some of the most iconic commercials from the Pacific Northwest. Funny stuff with a good-natured poke at the way we travel. Thanks Alaska Airlines.

  5. Agree with previous comment on bringing back ‘Pay Toilet’. All the ads are great but that one is priceless!

  6. This sure brought back memories! I was in one of those commercials when I was a CSA at the SEAFTO. If they air again could you let me know when and what channel they will be on please?

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