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Listen: Pan Am: “Once in a Lifetime: Put a Dime in the Slot”

In an age when most Americans fly at least once a year, it’s easy to forget that not so long ago they might have flown just once in a lifetime — if at all. As recently as 1965, only one in five Americans had ever flown on an airplane.

Pan Am was going to do something about that. For them, it was a matter of survival.

The 1960s were a good time for the airline industry. In 1965 and 1966, passenger air traffic was growing at the rate of 15 percent a year and showed no sign of slowing. As the industry grew, so did Pan Am. Juan Trippe, its president, had made a big bet on passenger jets in the 1950s. Now that bet was paying off.

No longer were the skies limited to the fabulously wealthy; now the merely affluent could fly too. In 1967, 40 percent of New York domestic air passengers had an annual income over $20,000 — at a time when the median income was $7,512. And those were domestic passengers. Pan Am only flew more expensive international routes. Although jets opened air travel up to people who never could’ve flown before, those people were still well off.

In these boom times, the airline launched the advertising campaign that would endure longest in the public imagination: “Pan Am makes the going great.”

Worldwide scope. Eighty-seven first-class entrees. A multinational corps of stewardesses. Imminent departures to the moon. This campaign promised Pan Am’s affluent passengers a premium experience. The jingle, composed by Stan Applebaum based on a line by copywriter Wilson Seibert Jr., quickly caught on. Within a couple of years, both Sammy Davis Jr. and Steve Allen had recorded their own versions.

Listen: Sammy Davis Jr.: “The Goin's Great”
Listen: Steve Allen: “The Goin's Great”

Yet for all the campaign’s popularity, it didn’t address Pan Am’s looming problem. The going might be great on Pan Am, but Pan Am needed to convince more people to go at all. And it needed to do it fast, because the world’s most experienced airline was about to get a whole lot more seats to fill.

Juan Trippe’s success with the first generation of passenger jets drove him to dream even bigger. In the mid-1960s, Trippe asked Boeing to develop the airplane that became the first jumbo jet. The 747 would carry two and a half times as many passengers as the 707 that started the jet age. Trippe immediately ordered 25 of them, with the first to be delivered in 1970.

For Pan Am, democratizing air travel became a matter of life and death. It had borrowed a massive amount of money to purchase $525 million worth of jumbo jets — then the largest single commercial purchase ever by a private company.1 The affluent market Pan Am had served to that point wouldn’t be enough to cover both the costs of operating the new jets and the costs of financing them. They needed new people.

And so in 1969, with the 747’s arrival imminent, Pan Am and J. Walter Thompson put a new twist on the “Going Great” campaign. The campaign now targeted people who had never flown before, or who at least had never contemplated leaving the country. These were people for whom a trip to Europe might quite literally, as the jingle suggests, be a “once in a lifetime” experience.

Listen: Pan Am: “Once in a Lifetime: Let the Grass Climb the Trees”
Listen: Pan Am: “Once in a Lifetime: Leave the Mail in the Box”
Listen: Pan Am: “Once in a Lifetime: Leave the Phone Off the Hook”
Listen: Pan Am: “Once in a Lifetime: Leave the Train On the Track”
Listen: Pan Am: “Once in a Lifetime: Take Your Wife by the Hand”
Listen: Pan Am: “Once in a Lifetime” Multilingual Medley

Superficially, the jingles are bouncy and light-hearted but they also pack a powerful punch. Some of the lyrics are almost confrontational: “Be a man, not a mouse,” the woman sings. The only things stopping you from the vacation of a lifetime are the tedious, quotidian demands placed upon you by The Man. A trip on Pan Am is the way to assert your autonomy in a world of oppressive responsibilities beyond your control. Money’s not an issue — in fact, you should be willing to finance your trip by selling your car and renting your house.2

It’s telling that when The Lettermen recorded a version of this jingle, they replaced the line “get into this world” with “I want to be free.” That is indeed the not-so-subtle subtext of the entire campaign.

When the 747 did fly, it had the misfortune of flying into a mild recession. But in truth, the problems were structural. The jumbo was an immediate hit with airlines, and Boeing delivered 92 747s in 1970. Airlines quickly discovered the air travel market was not nearly big enough to absorb all the extra capacity. Between 1971 and 1972, capacity on North Atlantic routes grew more than three times faster than demand. In 1971, on average, just over half of Pan Am’s seats on that route were empty.

Then, with the oil crisis in 1973, things went from bad to worse. Dark times for Pan Am drove the airline to a much darker place in its advertising, now produced by Carl Ally: fly now, because someday you’re going to die.

Ultimately, the 747 proved to be every bit as revolutionary as Juan Trippe had anticipated. It also doomed Pan Am. Faced with the challenge of selling thousands more seats, the airline was forced to discount tickets heavily. It sold huge blocks of tickets to wholesalers for cut-rate prices. To be sure, lower prices moved international air travel within the reach of the middle class. Yet even at these unsustainably low fares, Pan Am still struggled to fill its planes.

There’s one more bizarre chapter in the history of this jingle: it was turned into a ballet. A real, honest-to-goodness ballet. In 1971, the famous choreographer George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet staged PAMTGG (short for “Pan Am Makes The Going Great;” pronounced, according to the creator, “Pamt-guh-guh.”) The jazz-inspired score was composed by Roger Kellaway based on the themes by Stan Applebaum and Sid Woloshin. PAMTGG earned a notorious place in history. According to a reviewer who witnessed the performance, “the nadir was nadired. This one hit rock bottom with the dull thud of ineffable triviality.”

Jingles just don’t get any respect.

Listen: Pan Am: “Once in a Lifetime” Instrumental

Update, 18 April 2014: The commercials in this campaign have never been posted to YouTube, but I managed to get my hands on two of them. The first, introducing the 747, includes a great arrangement of the “Once in a Lifetime” theme. The second, starring the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, is cute. Poor tuba player. Please excuse the poor quality.

Airline: Pan American World Airways
Title: “Once in a Lifetime”
Agency: J. Walter Thompson, New York
Written by: Sid Woloshin (music), Warren Pfaff (lyrics), Stan Applebaum (“Goin’ Great” theme)
Year: 1969
Lyrics:

Put a dime in the slot.
Leave the boss on the spot.
Look the blues in the eye.
Shift from low into high.
Get away. Right away. Like today.
For once in a lifetime, get into this world.

Put a lock on the door.
Leave the four on the floor.
Disappear from the pack.
Do your thing. Don’t come back.
Get away. Right away. Like today.
For once in a lifetime, get into this world.

Pan Am makes the goin’ great.
Pan Am makes the goin’ great.
Pan Am makes the goin’ great…

  1. Thomas Petzinger, Hard Landing: The Epic Contest for Power and Profits That Plunged the Airlines into Chaos (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1996), 21. []
  2. Surely this lyric was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Pan Am did offer fly now, pay later plans. []

Reactions

  • sylvia

    This is great, thank you.

  • nick

    Do you know if that Steve Lawrence & Edie Gorme singing the “Leave the Phone off the Hook” version??

    Cheers,
    Nick

  • Stephen Johnston

    Did you know I re-wrote the words and created a commercial campaign on the American Forces Network in 1969 and the Lettermen recorded it promoting how the Army was changing? It was s great success! “Once in a Lifetime” Steve Johnston…AFN Frankfurt 1966-1969