Over the past three weeks, I have found the same eight-page slick mostly black-and-white advertising brochure for American Airlines inserted in one or other of my daily newspapers—The New York Times and Wall Street Journal—at least six times. This extended advertisement for American’s rebranded first class international service demonstrates how the image of the upscale consumer has changed over the past 60 years.
The cover depicts Gregory Peck, a film star active from 1944 into the 1980s, nattily dressed in a business suit, looking up towards the sky. His hands are in his pocket as he looks thoughtfully at a great expanse of sky. The top of a pencil thin pin striped handkerchief shows at the top of his coat breast pocket. In a blurry background we see the wing of an American airplane. A small headline reads, “In 1953, we invented transcontinental service.”
Turn the page and we see a two-page spread that shows an entire jet and actor Neil Patrick Harris dressed just as nattily as Peck and still as a businessman, walking inside the terminal. The headline is bigger, “Today, we reinvent it.”
What follows are two more photo spreads. In both, Neil is on the left page inside a plane and actress Julianna Margulies is on the right page, also in a plane. The two thespians are each alone and engaged in activities that reflect the headline of each page: Service. Comfort. Connectivity. Luxury. Julianna looks stunning, dressed in classic simplicity in what could be business wear or a cocktail dress. The photo is black and white, but if it were in color, her dress would still be black, I assure you.
The last page shows the tail of an American jet in full color with the headline “The legend is back.” In fact, the tail is the dominant visual image throughout the eight pages, getting into three photos, as many as Neil Patrick Harris.
American’s image of the luxury traveler sure has changed! From Gregory Peck to Neil Patrick Harris (with an assist from Julianna Margulies).
Already by 1953, Gregory Peck was typecast as the mythic American straight arrow—a little stiff and formal, honest and forthright, sincere, always following the rules, no nonsense, dedicated to principles. He had established this stereotype in such films as “The Yearling,” “Spellbound,” “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” “Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “Captain Horatio Hornblower” and “The Gunfighter.” He even played the ruthless and devious King David as an earnest school boy in “David and Bathsheba.” This stolid, straight-shooting image of Peck developed long before “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” “On the Beach” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” American Airlines uses Peck’s persona to represent its image of its customers in 1953—the idealistic American off to conquer the world for democracy (and capitalism).
And what does Neil Patrick Harris represent? For the past 10 years, his resume consists primarily of playing the same exact role in both a long-running sit com and three Harold and Kumar movies: that of a raunchy and immoral stud who will bed any woman and whose only interest in women is their bodies and sexuality. Whether playing it straight or satirizing, he is the quintessential cool-as-Sinatra laddie boy with emotions suspended in early adolescence, down to the interest in style and consumer toys and the inability to engage the opposite sex except in games of sexual conquest. Ironically, all the time that he has played the role of an insufferable heterosexual lothario, in real life Harris has been a completely out-of-the-closet gay. He is currently playing the lead role in the revival of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a Broadway musical about a transgendered rock star.
Whether approving or disapproving of Harris or the characters he plays, no one can doubt that he represents an amoral or polymorphic sexual adventurism.
Julianna Margulies also represents sexual freedom in a backhanded way, since she is best known for two roles on TV—in “ER” and “The Good Wife”—in which she played a beautiful and talented woman whose man sleeps around and otherwise embarrasses her. Perhaps the secret narrative of the eight-page ad is that she is running away from these sorrows, but still looks like ten million bucks.
The overt message is obvious: The ideal international traveler is still rich and stylish, but now he can also be a she, and in both cases, their travel abroad is sexy and sensual. The self-sacrificing idealist has been replaced by the fun-loving sybarite.
But beneath the surface commercial message lies an ugly anti-feminist narrative. The mythic contemporary man in the ad is a spiffy philanderer (whose real-life alter ego excludes women as potential sexual partners); the mythic contemporary woman is an alluring victim of philandering. The cultural references which viewers conjure in seeing these two actors does not paint a pretty picture for women. No matter how accomplished, wealthy or beautiful they are, American Airlines seems to be saying that at heart women are just pieces of tail.