Continental's CEO makes ad debut

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He's the folksy, delightfully mold-breaking public face of Continental Airlines. Yet Chairman-CEO Gordon Bethune hasn't made an appearance in any of the carrier's ads-until now.

Continental will launch TV spots late this month featuring Mr. Bethune, though it isn't one of those "I'm-the-CEO-trust-my-company" jobs. In fact, the airline doesn't expect most viewers to recognize Mr. Bethune, who won't speak a word and who plays the role of a pilot (not really an acting job, since Mr. Bethune is a licensed pilot who often flies new Continental planes from the factory).

But the ad should draw a smile from employees-always an important secondary target in airline ads-who have come to view Mr. Bethune as a white knight since he took over Continental and turned the money and PR loser into a highly regarded operation-and, currently, a possible merger partner for Delta Air Lines.

Executives at Continental and Bcom3 Group's N.W. Ayer & Partners, New York, had written a role for a pilot in the spot to plug its new planes and figured, why not give the boss the job?

"Even if you don't know him, which the vast majority of the people who view the commercial won't, it works creatively because Gordon literally has the capability to fly the planes, and we thought it would be a fun thing to do," said Rich Stoffer, senior partner at Ayer.

Continental has no plans to turn Mr. Bethune into a more well-known frontman along the lines of Richard Branson's role at Virgin Atlantic Airways or Herb Kelleher's at Southwest Airlines (like Mr. Bethune, a homespun Texan). These days CEOs seem to often star in ad campaigns only if a company is making some significant public apology, as United Airlines Chairman-CEO James Goodwin did last summer after a rash of flight delays and cancellations plagued his airline.

"While Gordon has a different voice than a lot of other chairmen, we are not looking for an ad campaign that has a talking head right now," said Elizabeth Diamond, Continental's senior manager-brand marketing.

Such a role would be difficult anyway as part of Continental's now four-year-old campaign with the "Work Hard. Fly Right." tagline. The campaign is largely text-based; the airline places witty, pithy messages-often tongue-in- cheek-in outdoor, print and TV ads alike. The TV spots, which run primarily in the key markets of New York, Cleveland and nationally on ESPN, have no voice-overs, only distinct musical tones to reflect the message; text flows atop Continental's now familiar blue background.

Toward the middle comes a short "insert" shot, where in the latest spot Mr. Bethune will turn toward the camera with a wink as the text asks, "So why do we love flying all those new planes? ... It makes all the `other' pilots jealous." Continental maintains it has the youngest jet fleet among the major airlines.

Ms. Diamond called the TV effort "Our outdoor brought to life."

Twice a year, Continental makes heavy use of the outdoor market in New York City, near its Newark International Airport hub (other hubs are in Cleveland and Houston).

Ads fall broadly into two categories: general messages touting things like the airline's service orientation ("Don't remember your last flight? You're welcome" is a new line); the other includes the clever "single destination" ads, which seek to show Continental flies to a wide range of destinations directly from Newark. New ads set for next month-there are more than 30 breaking in March- include "Van Wyck to Van Gogh" (NY to Amsterdam), "Flushing to the Loo" (NY to London) and "Simpson St. to the BART." (NY to Oakland). The TV ad with Mr. Bethune and new outdoor are part of an estimated $10 million spring campaign.

With United and American Airlines on the brink of mega-mergers, Mr. Bethune's next move could have a major impact not only on what happens to Continental, but whether government regulators will clear the United-US Airways and American-TWA nuptials. Continental has been rumored to be cozying up to Delta, a move that if announced could make regulators wary of too much consolidation and thwart all the proposed mergers. Last week, Mr. Bethune denounced the mega-mergers before a Senate committee.

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