Boeing slogan – if it’s not history, it’s a mystery

Mar 29, 2024, 9:00 AM | Updated: 9:23 am

boeing not going...

A bumper sticker from 1979 by "Dake" offers some clue to the origins of the organic Boeing slogan. (Via eBay)

(Via eBay)

It’s an unusual slogan or motto for a corporation to embrace because it appears to have emerged organically from the community where that corporation was once headquartered – not from a marketing department, ad agency or an elite team of branding consultants.

It’s also a slogan that’s been twisted around lately to express a meaning that is the opposite of what its original iteration had proudly proclaimed.

What is this well-known slogan?

“‘If it’s not Boeing, I’m not going!'” John Purvis said in a phone interview with KIRO Newsradio on Thursday. Purvis is retired now, but he worked for Boeing in various product support roles from 1956 to 1998, brilliantly timing his career to match the Golden Age of Jet Travel and Boeing’s Golden Age, as well. He still believes in the company and believes it will find its way again.

Full disclosure, we here at All Over The Map are not Boeing apologists, but we’re also not entirely unbiased about the mostly positive role that Boeing has played in the culture and history of the Pacific Northwest, and especially about the company’s role in designing and building bombers that won World War II – the B-17 and B-29 – and that helped win the Cold War, and that are still on duty in the skies today, like the B-52.

Not to mention the company’s role in perfecting civilian jet travel almost 70 years ago. Of course, the feelings toward Boeing of many local people changed following the merger with McDonnell-Douglas in the late 1990s, and especially with the departure of Boeing headquarters from Seattle more than 20 years ago.

And clearly, Boeing has had a rough go of it lately, with very public problems around what some say is a corporate culture that no longer puts safety ahead of shareholder value. The 737 MAX suffered two deadly crashes that grounded those planes for months, and now, in the wake of the door plug incident with Alaska Airlines, that old slogan has been showing up on social media as “if it IS Boeing, I’m not going.”

For retired 42-year Boeing employee John Purvis, it’s clear why the original slogan was all about Boeing people and Boeing families taking personal pride in Boeing aircraft.

What did those words mean, exactly, to John Purvis?

“Boeing built not only quality products, but reliable and safe,” Purvis said.

To spell it out even more clearly, the slogan is something of a proud boast, essentially saying “if the airplane I’m supposed to fly on was manufactured by some company other than Boeing, I’m taking a different flight.”

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The meaning may be clear, but the specific origins are a little murky.

Mike Lombardi, Boeing’s archivist and historian, has searched for the origins, but has not had much luck.

“The question has come up in the past, and unfortunately we have not been able to find anything definitive,” Lombardi wrote in an email on Thursday.

Lombardi also confirmed that the slogan did not emerge from within the company.

“It was not official branding work, but rather something organic,” Lombardi wrote. “It certainly caught on and there was never any pushback from leadership.”

Even though it wasn’t created by Boeing, the slogan has been embraced by the company, with items such as t-shirts and buttons bearing the slogan currently available for purchase via the official online Boeing Store.

John Purvis and other Boeing retirees questioned for this story date the creation of the slogan to either the 1960s or the 1970s. Basic online searches seemingly point toward 1979 as the specific date when it became part of the public consciousness.

On eBay, vintage bumper stickers bearing the slogan in simple block letters, black ink on white vinyl, include a copyright date of 1979 and the name “Dake.” Whether this name is a first name or surname or the name of a company – perhaps the graphic designer or the printer – is unclear.

An item in a column by longtime local writer and man-about-town Emmett Watson narrows down the date even further. In that August 3, 1979 Seattle Post-Intelligencer piece, Watson asks, “Have you seen the latest local bumper sticker? ‘If it’s not Boeing, I’m not going.'”

Why would the slogan emerge and be available to purchase on a bumper sticker in August 1979?

The deadliest aviation accident in U.S. history was American Airlines Flight 191, which crashed on May 25, 1979. A total of 273 people died – 271 aboard the plane, two on the ground – at O’Hare Airport in Chicago when a DC-10, the flagship product of what was then Boeing’s biggest and most serious competitor, McDonnell-Douglas, lost an engine as it was attempting to take off.

It was a horrific crash. Amateur photos of the jumbo jet moments before impact – rolling to one side and just a few hundred feet above the ground – were front-page news around the country. Investigators later determined that improper maintenance procedures had damaged the pylon connecting the engine to the wing when the engine snapped off, the jet was unflyable. All DC-10s were grounded for about six weeks that June and July, and public hearings into the tragedy were held and covered extensively by the media.

In 1979, McDonnell-Douglas was Boeing’s only serious competitor. Airbus was less than a decade old and only had one model of jetliner back then and not much market share. Lockheed had the L-1011, but was not expanding its domestic jetliner offerings.

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Thus, the theory is that pride in the safety of Boeing jets in the wake of the widely publicized DC-10 crash in Chicago inspired some Seattle person – Dake perhaps – to create that first bumper sticker in the late spring or early summer of 1979.

Of course, the slogan could have been created earlier and may have circulated for years – as an unofficial statement of Boeing pride not in specific relation to any kind of accident with a competitor’s product. Whatever the timing of its origin, the fact that the slogan was organic – and not some corporate-created and mandated propaganda – is extraordinary. This fact alone perhaps says more about the role Boeing once played here than just about anything else.

Still, there’s more to be discovered about “If it’s not Boeing, I’m not going!”

To this end, officials at the Museum of Flight (who helped connect KIRO Newsradio with John Purvis) and the International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 751 – the labor union for Boeing machinists – will continue to search for more information among their membership and will share what they find.

Meanwhile, if you have information or a theory to share, please reach out via my contact information below or comment on my Facebook page (which includes an image of the 1979 bumper sticker).

You can hear Feliks Banel every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien. Read more from Feliks here and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks.

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Boeing slogan – if it’s not history, it’s a mystery