OPINION: Mills on ... British Airways

It is the voice that first captures you: a warm, deep, rich, laid-back baritone that combines gentle amusement with a slightly world-weary feel. Almost professorial in pitch, it's the kind of voice that makes you think: "This sounds interesting, I'll pay attention to this ad."

The first time I heard it I thought it was Garrison Keillor, author of the wonderful Lake Wobegon series of novels, but better known here as the voiceover in the Wieden & Kennedy Honda ads. In fact, the voice is that of the BA spokesman PJ O'Rourke, and the ad is part of the flag carrier's attempt to take the fight back to the low-cost airlines that have eaten its lunch, and probably some of its dinner too.

And not before time, you might say, since the likes of Ryanair and easyJet have, in the past few years, made BA look as confident as an England cricketer, as friendly as an Iraqi peace delegation and as nippy and fast-moving as a Green Goddess.

Starting with the tailfins, it's been a rotten few years for BA: strike threats, the Concorde crash, foot and mouth, 11 September, lay-offs and failed mergers have all combined to make the airline look inept. On top of that, it has had to put up with endless jibes from the likes of Stelios and his counterpart at Ryanair, Michael O'Leary, including one memorable radio interview where I heard the latter claim, without a hint of embarrassment, that Luton airport was closer to the centre of London than Heathrow. If you're BA, how irritating is that?

The ad opens on a large group of people gazing blankly up at a departure screen where every flight is delayed or cancelled. "The whole world and his wife want to travel low-cost," PJ intones. "But what we want, you know, is airlines with flights ... more back-up when things go wrong ... a few more staff would be nice (cut to check-in desks looking like the Marie Celeste) ... planes that land somewhere near the city centre (cut to deserted continental airport and a sign saying 'centre 98kms') ... reserved seats perhaps (we see passengers sprinting over the runway to get to the plane first) ... and food ... all included in the price."

Well, is that negative or what? Of course, you have to strip away the tone of gentle amusement to really see it but, no two ways about it, this ad is a vicious assault on easyJet and Ryanair. Of course, even if BA has persuaded the BACC that it can substantiate every claim it makes (probably not too hard actually), such an unremittingly negative line is not without its dangers. Those who have had a positive experience on the low-cost airlines might dismiss BA. Those who think BA has ripped people off for too long may be similarly unimpressed. Not least, BA has to make sure that it can not only compete with Ryanair and the low-cost gang on price, but do better in terms of service, food, seating and reliability.

However, you get the feeling that BA has decided it is time to get out of its shell and come out fighting. To me, the ad suggests the mark of an organisation with renewed confidence and intent. Note, too, that it doesn't actually attack the concept of low-cost travel per se, which would obviously make a nonsense of BA's new positioning, merely the delivery of such a service in the hands of, as the ad implies, low-cost cowboys.

It does this by zeroing in, like a heat-seeking missile, on every prejudice that we might have about the low-cost airlines, from appalling service to a cavalier disregard for timetables, geography and customer satisfaction.

And whatever the tone of the ad, it does nothing to diminish the power of the message. Entertaining stuff, but mighty effective too.

Dead cert for a Pencil? Unlikely, but you never know.

File under ... V for vicious.

What would the chairman's wife say? "Have you been taking the

testosterone supplements again?"

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