Perspective: Snoring in Your Seat

Boeing's marketing, from Stratocruiser to Dreamliner

It’s not often that an airframe manufacturer needs to trouble with direct-to-consumer advertising. After all, few shoppers flipping through a magazine have $332.9 million to drop on a new 747. But there are exceptions (Boeing, in this case) when an aviation giant has turned out a plane so influential it can’t resist buzzing the rooftops. Two such cases appear on these pages, as does a salient lesson in marketing: Stylish young models and sharp digital photography might be nice to look at, but it doesn’t always make for a more effective ad.

In 1947, Boeing was returning to the civilian market after nearly 10 years of building only military planes. Adopted from the B-29 bomber, the Stratocruiser (a catchy name that touted the plane’s ability to fly at 33,000 feet) represented Boeing’s full-throttle effort to lure the public with a mix of technology and pampering. Not only did the Stratocruiser’s four 3,500-horsepower prop engines give the aluminum titan a 4,600-mile range, but the double-decker plane also featured hot meals, a smoking lounge downstairs and comfy berths able to sleep 28 people. In this ad, Boeing’s marketers also stressed engineering (check out that test-flight crew at work, right) to quell public anxiety about flying. In essence, then, this was a big, serious plane with big, serious marketing to match it, according to aviation historian and veteran journalist Henry M. Holden. “The airplane is pictured in flight—you can see those props turning—and it gave you a sense of power and bigness,” he said. “And when you see the instruments, you also get the feeling these guys are really testing these planes. So the ad is right-on. I understand exactly what they’re trying to tell the public.”

Sixty-five years later, Boeing has another pioneering plane it wants the public to know about. The 787 Dreamliner is the world’s first carbon-composite commercial airliner. Its lightweight engines give the behemoth a 7,650-mile range. Like the Stratocruiser, the 787 can be configured for two decks, and it’s packed with perks: oversized, electronically dimmable windows; seat-to-seat email; lavatories with bidets; and interior LEDs that create varicolored light shows to lull passengers into a slumber, hence the name.

The trouble is, rather than clearly conveying these impressive attributes, the 2012 ad, opposite, opts for a stock-image look that is, Holden said, both “unrealistic and over the top.” The fliers lounge in single-seat rows, “a seating arrangement that will never exist,” he said. Boeing has relegated all talk of the plane’s distinguishing features to its website, which, Holden observed, few consumers are ever likely to visit. Most confusing of all, the word “dream,” which appears three times in the copy, affords no clue of what said dream might be—unless one counts those three passengers gazing dreamily out the window. “But who looks out the window at 35,000 feet?” Holden said. “I’ve only done it writing an article on cloud formations.”

Too bad they did away with the smoking lounge.