Can an Ad Save a Doomed Plane?

In 1980, Adweek knew an ill-fated campaign when it saw one

Thirty-eight years ago, a major airline manufacturer was in serious trouble and hoped a bit of advertising would bail it out. Adweek’s July 14, 1980, issue carried the news of a new campaign aimed at salvaging the reputation of the DC-10 jet—and with it, the fortunes of maker McDonnell Douglas.

A little over a year prior, the port-side engine on American Airlines Flight 191 ripped off the wing during takeoff at Chicago O’Hare. The plane stalled, crashed and killed 273 people. While the NTSB would fault American for faulty maintenance, the public blamed the plane, nicknaming it the “Death Cruiser 10.”

Enter J. Walter Thompson, which cast former astronaut Pete Conrad in a series of ads in which he staked his reputation on the jet. Good luck with that. “The campaign may stir up more controversy and lead to renewed public concern,” Adweek reported. McDonnell Douglas scrapped the DC-10 soon afterwards, limping toward an eventual merger with Boeing.