ABC's 'Pan Am' builds on glamour of Jet Age

Ask a harried, shoeless passenger who’s retrieving a laptop from a security conveyor belt if he or she can imagine a time of stress-free, comfortable air travel and you’ll probably get a blank stare.

But for former flight attendant Dr. Helen Davey, it’s just a matter of reflecting on the 20 years she spent working for Pan Am.

As an employee of the international carrier, Davey flew to cities like Tel Aviv and Bangkok, accumulating a lifetime of memorable experiences. She saw the Moscow Ballet during Leonid Brezhnev’s regime; flew to Saigon during the Vietnam War on Pan Am jets in order to take soldiers for R&R trips.

“The world was not homogenized then, so we were often the first Americans that anybody had ever met or talked to,” says Davey. “We felt like ambassadors to the world. If you loved to travel, it was just a dream.”

ABC is hoping to recapture that dream in its new drama “Pan Am,” which debuted 10 p.m. Sept. 25. While persuading the 18-35 demographic that flying was once glamorous might seem like a challenge, ABC Entertainment’s marketing exec VP Marla Provencio says the series’ sophisticated style transcends any pre-conceived notions.

“There are such universal themes running through” the show, Provencio says. “And what era doesn’t love anything about fashion and glamour? So we played into that, showing that the world was their oyster. Any age can grab onto that and run with it.”

In fact, partnering with an established brand has enabled the network to build on a legacy that Pan Am Brands, a merchandising division of a regional railway company that purchased the rights to the airline in 1998, has been quietly cultivating through a line of handbags, luggage and travel accessories.

“We have a very valuable property, and we’re very diligent in making sure that the heritage of Pan Am is kept intact in the way that we would want it to,” says Stacy Beck, director of marketing and corporate development at Pan Am Brands.

For that reason, it’s no surprise that the iconic blue-and-white logo bag that was so much a part of the airline is so much a part of the re-established brand: at this year’s Comin-Con in San Diego, ABC’s “Pan Am” media blitz featured an airplane fuselage parked in the convention center, staffed with jet age-attired stewardesses giving away the coveted bags. The replica of the first-class cabin has been on a mall tour since late August, hitting Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, culminating Sept. 23 in New York.

“The stewardesses have been bombarded with attention, people wanting to take pictures with them, wanting the bags,” Provencio says, adding that there will be branded tray tables on U.S. Airways as well as luggage tags polybagged with the New York Times.

ABC is also hitting the digital realm hard in its quest for a younger demo. There’s a music station on Pandora Internet Radio that’s solely devoted to music from the “Pan Am” era, which fans can reach through Facebook. Twitter features the “Twitter-powered flight” in which viewers tweet the show and unlock content; and ABC.com features interviews with former Pan Am flight attendants in “The Real Stewardesses of Pan Am” webisodes.

“The biggest challenge is bringing the younger audience in and making sure that there’s something there for them to hang on to,” Provencio says. “You have to get people invested emotionally.”

Complementing aggressive billboard campaigns in major markets are fashion displays at bus shelters in New York and Los Angeles, which were timed with New York’s Fashion Week and feature actual uniforms and accessories encased in glass.

“Once we get it off the ground, there’s endless possibilities. Every week you’re going to go to a different place; you’re going to be in a different city,” Provencio says.

While it’s hard to turn a corner in a major city without stumbling across the campaign, Pan Am Brands’ Beck says the company wasn’t even looking for a Hollywood partnership when the idea first came to them from Sony Pictures Television through producer and former flight attendant Nancy Ganis.

“They found us,” Beck says. “Nancy, being a former Pan Am stewardess, had this is a life-long dream to tell this story of the adventures that she and her peers had lived flying in the Jet Age.”

However, licensing a brand to use in a creative endeavor like a TV show raises a lot of questions, which dragged out negotiations for nearly four years. Complicating matters was a deal with Marc Jacobs for a line of handbags, which had to expire before Sony, Ganis and Pan Am could move forward.

Among the many likely product integration deals for Pan Am is one that has historical significance for the former airline. Canada Dry ginger ale will be served to fictional characters in the cabin throughout the show’s first season, much like it was during the airline’s heyday.

“A week after we started conversations with (Sony), I got two old images of a Pan Am stewardess, and the only thing on her beverage cart was Canada Dry ginger ale,” says Lauren Radcliffe, director of branded entertainment at Cadbury Schweppes, Canada Dry’s parent company. “The truth is that we identified the partnership before we even knew.”

Radcliffe also says the company rarely engages in integration deals until a show is into its second season, but somehow “Pan Am” seemed different.

“Usually when a show gets picked for the first season, it doesn’t typically feel good enough that we’re willing to take the chance,” Radcliffe says, adding that the only other show the company partnered with in its freshman year was NBC’s “30 Rock” with Snapple. “To me, it feels like ‘Pan Am’ has been around a long time. It was such an organic fit for us in that environment.”

For now, Pan Am Brands has a holiday line launching separately from the merchandising surrounding the series, which ABC is handling, and the brand has no other product integration or licensing plans.

“I think we have our hands full,” Beck says with a hearty laugh. “I don’t know how many projects in Hollywood we want to play with at once.”

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