A dose of unwanted publicity

United Airlines mum on 9/11 movie

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CHICAGO -- The United Airlines name is visible across the country this week, trumpeted as part of a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign, seen on commercials and discussed on talk shows.

It is all part of a publicity onslaught the airline is trying hard to avoid.

United 93 debuts tomorrow in movie theaters across the country. It tells the story of one of the four airplanes hijacked the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Although the film has drawn harsh criticism from some who feel it reopens emotional wounds, United Airlines has worked to stay neutral, neither criticizing nor praising the film and its producers.

United did not participate in the making of the movie, but the title and plot are grim reminders of the airline's role in the events. It is not the kind of publicity any company wants, said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a New York company that measures customer loyalty.

"They say it doesn't matter what they say about you as long as they spell your name right," Passikoff said. "In this case, you don't want them spelling your name right. You don't want them even talking about you."

United Flight 93 took off from Newark International Airport at about 8 o'clock that morning, bound for San Francisco. The Boeing 757 crashed in rural western Pennsylvania, after extraordinary acts of heroism by the crew and passengers to wrest control from the terrorists.

Nearly five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, there is fierce debate over whether it is too soon for Hollywood to provide its take on the events. The coming attractions for the movie upset some theatergoers. The message board on the film's Web site includes several angry postings, including one that begins, "This movie should never have been made."

UAL Corp., United Airlines' parent, has worked with documentary producers on Sept. 11 projects, but it declined requests to support films that include any fictionalized scenes connected to events that occurred that morning.

Still, the United name and logo will appear in some scenes, said airline spokeswoman Robin Urbanski.

"We did not give permission," she said. "Obviously, we think we should have been, but we were never asked."

United has allowed its name and logo to be used in some films, including The Terminal, where Catherine Zeta-Jones portrayed a United flight attendant. But airlines typically balk at participating in films that depict crashes. A notable exception was Castaway, where Federal Express allowed its name and logo to be used, even though the movie included a scene of a jet crashing into the ocean.

Generally in films that depict historical events such as the Sept. 11 attacks, the use of a company's name and logo can be used, said Robert Titley, a trademark attorney with the firm Quarles & Brady in Milwaukee. "United may not like it, but I'm sure they can't do anything about it."

Universal Pictures and writer-director Paul Greengrass anticipated that there would be some anger over their decision to make the film. They worked closely with relatives of those who died on Flight 93 in developing the script. The studio has also announced that 10 percent of box-office revenue collected from the first three days of the North American release of the film will be donated to the Flight 93 National Memorial project.

The movie is the second to be made about the flight. A made-for-TV movie, Flight 93, has aired on the A&E channel. Later this year, Oliver Stone's World Trade Center will be released.

Passikoff, the brand loyalty executive, said any film depicting the traumatic events of Sept. 11 could reawaken concerns about flying and hurt ticket demand.

"This is something that goes to the very marrow of folks who fly," he said.

But not everyone sees the film inflicting an entirely negative marketing message on United.

"I don't think people hold United responsible for what happened, and the story is really a story of courage by the crew and passengers in fighting back," said Alan Siegel, chairman and chief executive of Siegel & Gale, a strategic branding firm in New York.

Mark Skertic writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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