Delta’s ‘Climb’ Looks Good

In the movie Network, right before newscaster Howard Beale makes his famous, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” spiel, he tells his audience that he has “run out of bullshit.”

At this point, Howard’s line applies widely: to politics, healthcare, the economy — and most certainly to the experience of flying. I would hope that by now, airlines have also run out of bullshit. Really, what can an airline say in a tagline other than, “And that will be $25 more for your carry on!”

So, imagine being in the position of Delta, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2007 and agreed to merge with Northwest in ’08, a move creating the world’s largest airline. At this point, size is no plus — it just means that the brand has taken on a bigger percentage of the industry’s oft-parsed problems.

Do you riff on previously well-known Delta taglines to update them in a way that shows the carrier understands? Like, “We love to merge and it shows?” Or, “Delta is ready when you are — like you’re ever really ready to fly.”

In the case of this new campaign (which includes television, print, billboards, transit  advertising and other executions) from Wieden + Kennedy in New York, the agency started in the only place it could: with the truth. The tagline is “Keep climbing,” which conveys a dedication to constant work and excellence. Every detail is elevated and uplifting — literally and metaphorically — from the words and pictures to the sounds and musical score.

First of all, this is no mere announcer — it’s the voice of Donald Sutherland. He does such a beautiful job with his lines that when he says, “We’re not just building a bigger airline, we’re building a better one,” he even makes the word “better” sound better. His tongue taps lightly over the double “t” sound — rather than the Sopranos-style doubling down that makes a “t” sound like a “d” buried in cement.  (Yo, no complaints. I’m from New Jersey.)

Then there’s the music, an original score by Carter Burwell, who has worked on all the Coen Brothers movies in addition to scoring Where the Wild Things Are, The Blind Side, and Twilight. It was recorded live with 22 musicians (from cello to mandolin and tympani) and it makes a difference. When the hangar doors open in “Lift” and we see the light, we also hear enough strings to make the heart flutter.

As for the visuals, the black-and-white moving pictures could not be more gorgeous. (The director is Anonymous Content’s Mark Romanek, of Michael Jackson and Madonna music video fame. The DP is Harris Savides.) The individual shots remind me of the images of Margaret Bourke-White, who photographed steel mills and foundries in the 1930s and ’40s in a way that was heroic. (And she has a famous portrait of the inside of a giant pipe that was part of a dam that looks very much like one of the shots of the inside of an engine here.)

Both TV spots are beautiful, but in the second one, called “Human factor,” the visuals are even more elevated. They cleverly match the equipment with people: A windshield and aviator glasses, a wing and an arm, a headlight and an eye. The folks shown are all Delta employees, (500 of them are in the cast), and one of them has the most beautiful braid in the Northern Hemisphere.

Sure, the reality is that you can’t fix anything with a beautiful ad campaign. And indeed, as David Ogilvy said, the fastest way to kill a bad product is to give it good advertising.

At the very least, this will be great for employee morale. And if the attention to quality in the field is anywhere near as great as the attention to quality in the advertising, Delta is ready for take-off.