Fly the Branded Skies

Tropes: Graduation Day

Every kind of advertising has—well, let’s call them “conventions.” Airline advertising is no different. This is part of a series of posts on the clichés of airline advertising.

This may not be a pervasive trope, but over the years it has popped up often enough to make for some interesting comparisons: stewardesses graduating from training. These four spots, spanning four decades, tell a lot both about how flight attendants are portrayed in advertising and how they’re seen by society at large.

Let’s start in the late 1960s.

United’s stewardesses are “girls” just leaving the nest. Their parents bid them a tearful farewell — their little daughters are all grown up! They aren’t shown to have any special skills except smiling, singing, and wearing weird hats. All they’re expected to do is be friendly to the passengers.

Skip ahead to 1971.

American’s stewardesses walk down the stairs like fashion models. The principal — an archetype for Belding who must have seemed patronizing, even at the time — tells them their job is two-fold: be courteous, and be beautiful. Oh, and apparently Mary-Beth needs to learn how to carve a goddamn roast beef. The stewardesses giggle politely at Principal Belding’s joke, and then they get their wings.

1979. Same airline.

Vicky was one of the lucky few accepted to flight attendant college — yes, that’s right. “Flight attendant college.” There they taught her how to put on makeup. But they also taught her about oxygen masks, and that could come in handy someday. The flight attendants no longer have to walk down the stairs with roses in their arms at graduation. Still, the secret to American’s success isn’t their rigorous training, but the fact that they try to find people who are “nice.”

Fast forward to the mid to late 1990s.

She’s not a girl. She’s a MOM! She has a daughter in college! She learned all about safety! She could probably rebuild the whole plane using nothing but elastic bands and egg cartons if she had to. She didn’t even learn about coffee-pouring or pillow-fluffing. Or how to be “nice,” “courteous,” “beautiful,” or “friendly.” Now it’s the daughter who’s choking up at the graduation ceremony.

These spots show a huge shift in the way flight attendants are perceived. There’s an obvious arc in these commercials from sex object to respected professional. But the more subtle change is one of emphasis. The earlier commercials focus on the “girls'” natural talents and qualities. As time goes on, that focus shifts — the commercials talk more and more about the rigorous training a flight attendant goes through.

In the mid-1970s, infuriated by sexist campaigns like “Fly me. Fly National,” flight attendants started working to build a professional reputation, in much the same manner as other professions historically associated with women — such as nursing or teaching.

They succeeded. Now when airlines say their flight attendants are “friendly,” they don’t do it with a wink. And more likely, the flight attendants will be portrayed as trained professionals with a role to play in operations and aircraft safety.