Do social networks provide “ambient intimacy” or faux friendships? A lesson from the “friendly skies of United.”

March 23, 2009

Classic United Airlines commercial

When I first arrived to Leo Burnett, United Airlines was one of the agency’s most prominent accounts. And rightly so. The work “we” did for United was world class. In my book “Fly the friendly skies of United” remains one of the best ad lines of all time. The glossy commercials were Leo Burnett at its finest: big, wise, singular, damn near perfect in every way.

As good (and not good) as United’s work has been since, it’s never risen to the same level. Not even close. Want proof? What is United’s big idea today? You don’t know, do you? Neither do I. When you’re done reading, take a look at this classic spot and tell me (in the age of email and social networks) if the message isn’t even more relevant now than it was 20 years ago. Amazing, right?

Adpulp just did a piece about “ambient intimacy” defining it as the ability to remain “closer than ever” to people because of social networks and the like.

Adpulp: Ambient intimacy?

Hmm, I wonder. Can Twittering be defined as intimate? Is Facebook really about “friends?”

I doubt it.

I think ambient intimacy is like cosmetic surgery. It looks great but it’s just not the same. And frankly, it might even be egregious. Who knows what all this faux intimacy is doing to our culture?

The above United commercial, which I’m calling “Face Time,” reveals a deeper truth. Even then people were relying on “faxes and phone calls” instead of honest, face to face communication. In United’s narrative a company almost pays dearly for its laziness or “ambient intimacy.”

I could write a lot more about this and probably will. But do me a favor. Watch the spot and read the piece on Adpulp. Then tell me, is ambient intimacy better than a handshake or infinitely more perverse?

8 Responses to “Do social networks provide “ambient intimacy” or faux friendships? A lesson from the “friendly skies of United.””

  1. The United spot was called “Ben,” and it’s still great…one of the best of all time. On a purely operational level, United was never a great airline, but this spot (and some others) always made me feel like it was.

    “Ambient intimacy” is a smart marketing phrase, suggesting something of enormous value. The expression is as skillfully manufactured as the Burnett spot was in playing to the emotions of business.

    Of course, relying on Twitter for intimate human connection is absurd. But probably no worse than believing there’s a place with “friendly skies.”

  2. elijahP said

    SP – this is one of my favorite ads of all time. Pitch perfect in every way. Casting. Location. The music comes in at the exact right frame. Gene Hackman’s voice. I believe this is Leslie Dektor, right? But behind everything was an incredibly terse script. It incorporates copy points (“that has to be over 200 cities”) seamlessly. This was film, and like all great film, it was created with a vision.
    The other thing that strikes me, especially in your discussion of twitter, is how vulnerable the people are. They’ve been injured, slighted. Some are obviously afraid of losing a job. That vulnerability and humanity can be captured in an ad once or twice a decade, but it’s something that I believe happens more and more online, whether it’s on flickr or facebook or tweeting your mom (that doesn’t sound right, does it?). Where a brand can play a credible role in that isn’t certain. An endorsement from a friend, whether that friend is next door or a kindred sole on a chat thread matters.

    One more thought on the commercial – it always made me wonder how they sold the location to the client. It works perfectly, but is so counter-intuitive to the audience and cast.

  3. adchick said

    I remember this ad and loved it. The intent of it’s message rings true today. The bottom line is and always will be relationships, personal integrity, your word. The advertising can help you remember the name, but the way you were treated will bring you back to buy once more. And no one knows that better than small town clients.

    Facebook and Twitter are fun to play with. That’s it.

  4. Jeff Jones said

    I’ve pulled that spot out multiple times in my career as reminder of what matters most. But i’m also reminded that, like it or not, there is a new wave of immediacy pouring over us that impacts most areas of life. And, a new wave of talent entering the workforce that fundamentally doesn’t see a difference between a conversation and a tweet. An interaction and a status update. The ability to read a person’s body language and reading their email. I struggle with it for sure, but i embrace this beautiful face of change by following the credo that made us so successful at LB Works – “new tools, old school” You have to do both!

  5. David Burn said

    Of course you want to meet face-to-face. That’s obvious. But without the Web, you (Steffan) wouldn’t know that you wanted to meet me (David) face-to-face. In the old days, I might have called you or sent you a letter, but I would have been just another aspiring somebody. The fact is people who are like-minded find one another online and become “friends,” whatever that phrase might mean today.

  6. SRP said

    True, true David.
    Bear in mind I adore social networks, blogging and especially email. I’m just thinking out loud about the hidden ramifications of your wonderfully coined “ambient intimacy.”

  7. […] Steffan Postaer, Do social networks provide “ambient intimacy” or faux friendships? […]

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