Fly the Branded Skies

Jingle: United “Ballad of the Boss” (1976)

You're the boss.

Listen: United Air Lines: “Ballad of the Boss”

There’s a reason why Leo Burnett was United’s advertising agency for more than thirty years. It has to do with Burnett’s trademark style: Warm. Folksy. Midwestern. Sometimes a bit schmaltzy. But always human. For a long time, that style fit United’s brand perfectly. The result was some of the most memorable airline advertising of the last century.

This jingle, “Ballad of the Boss,” is a classic example. It tells the story of a 6-year-old boy’s first flight. It’s a cute spot that makes you smile — too cheesy to air today, yet somehow charming.

The funny thing is, the “You’re the Boss” campaign launched by this spot was, in a way, intended as a corrective to all the sappy “friendly skies” advertising of the previous decade. United had slipped among business travelers; “You’re the Boss” was the airline’s attempt to grow the business market, which at the time made up 50 percent of its traffic. So the spot with the little cowboy was actually far from typical for the campaign. Most of it was more like this:

That commercial, starring Joanna Cassidy, caused a minor stir for featuring a businesswoman in the main role. But it was forward-looking in another way, too, because it presaged a focus in airline advertising on catering to business travelers.

Because make no mistake: the “boss” today isn’t a little kid in a cowboy hat. It’s business travelers. They pay higher fares and fly with greater frequency. So air travel, and the marketing thereof, is designed for them.

The “You’re the Boss” campaign was fairly short-lived; it was “put out to pasture” less than a year later, possibly after a change in who was calling the shots on the client side. But ultimately it was a sign of things to come.

Airline: United Air Lines
Title: “Ballad of the Boss”
Agency: Leo Burnett, Chicago
Written By: Unknown
Performed By: Ed Bruce (narrator)
Year: 1976
Original Lyrics:

(spoken) He stood three-foot four
as he walked through the door
of the United DC-10.

He liked the wide-open space that he saw
and the chance to make new friends.

He settled back in
sitting next to his kin
that rode side-by-side, three across.

He was a mighty big man.
They gave him his due.
Yeah, he was clearly the boss.

(sung) He’s the boss! The boss of the friendly skies!

(spoken) They poured three fingers
of his favourite brand
with a meal that a big guy could hold.

Then they rolled out the good times,
right there, where he sat,
a TV talking picture show.

(sung) He’s the boss of the friendly skies!

(spoken) As he strode off the plane
to a summer adventure
he gave a smile and a wave of his hat.

And the friends that he made
waved good bye in the hope
that one day, the boss would be back.

(sung) Fly the friendly skies of United.