How Transportation Brands Sell Leisure and Sophistication Through Cocktails

The allure of the bar car

Headshot of Robert Klara

Ever since long-distance transportation evolved beyond the Conestoga wagon, commercial carriers (which, in the 20th century, meant trains and planes) have dealt with an obscure but serious problem. Most every carrier wants to convey a sense of leisure, luxury and sophistication, right? So here’s the problem: What advertising image conveys it?

The options are surprisingly few. Exterior shots of the train or the aircraft are nice, but since trains and planes pretty much look alike, there’s little differentiation there. And a photo from the inside is even more problematic. What interior space whispered refinement—the lavatory? The baggage section? How about coach? So, you get the idea.

The solution, as the two advertisements here demonstrate, is to use the one section of the train or plane that’s never failed to impress: the cocktail lounge. Whether it was the New York Central Railroad in 1952 or Emirates airlines today, there’s just nothing quite like a cluster of passengers mingling over drinks to transmit that feeling of elegance and refinement that every carrier covets. “Both railroads and airlines faced the challenge of how to attract people in a way that goes beyond the functional seat,” observed Tim Calkins, marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management. “These two ads are strikingly similar in that they both play off the aspirations of travelers and the romance of the travel experience. What could be better than mingling with glamorous people?”

Not much—and marketers have known it for a long time now. During the heyday of American railroading, most lines willingly operated their dining and bar cars in the red. Whatever those spaces lost in revenue, they made up for in positioning the train as a premiere choice over the competition. Lounge cars like the one shown here were staffed by white-coated attendants who’d deliver your gin and tonic while you shuffled the playing cards with your companions.

Airlines were quick to borrow from this bit of marketing acumen. Early commercial aircraft like the Clippers and the Stratocruisers all came equipped with bar/lounges that appeared in the advertising. The fact is long forgotten now, but the first 747s featured lounges, too, some with grand pianos. The bars were upstairs, just aft of the cockpit. Passengers called them “flying penthouses.”

The fuel crisis of 1973 spelled the end of these spaces for the heritage carriers, but Emirates has resurrected the idea in its new fleet of A380s, as its ad here proudly shows. “For Emirates, this is a big investment since space on a plane is so valuable,” Calkins said. But at a time when other carriers’ marketing is still focused on seat-side amenities, Emirates’ shifting the attention to the bar makes it “unique in the world of advertising,” Calkins added. “It’s the reason the ad is so striking.”

And oddly familiar, too. After all, what long trip isn’t better with a drink?

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.
Publish date: June 20, 2013 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT