Punting brand mention a funny waste of money

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Marketer: Southwest Airlines
Agency: GSD&M, Austin, Texas
Rating: One star

Hilarious commercials. Charming commercials. Delightful commercials. The second autumn of NFL-themed spots from GSD&M, Austin, Texas, for Southwest Airlines are just as fresh and funny as the first pool a year ago.

And just as terrible.

No. Check that. These are worse, because they lack the one thing--the wonderful "You are now free to move around the country" tagline--that kept last year's spots from being entirely irrelevant. This year, with the tagline missing, the advertising has absolutely nothing to do with the advertiser.

Not only does it refuse to be so crass as to highlight Southwest's extraordinary USP, it deftly avoids even the slightest reference to the brand, the category or travel in general. Well done.

The "Must be football season" campaign is thus the purest example ever created of utterly gratuitous entertainment value. These are perfect comedic gems, 30-second gifts of laughter promoting, if anything, the football industry, courtesy of your friends at Southwest.

And we're grateful. Really, we are. The spots are a hoot. Our particular favorite is the one in the shoe store, where the salesman is kneeling in front of a customer, holding a brown pump upright while reaching around for the other shoe. A second customer spies the hold, approaches and boots the shoe soccer-style for three points.

Her defiant glower as she backs away from the spot, arms raised, is simply magnificent.

Oh, yeah, and fly Southwest.

What's particularly bizarre is that this is one of the few competitors in a mainly generic category with something newsworthy to say. They run a cattle car, but it's a very friendly and organized cattle car, and the prices are phenomenal.

"You are now free to move around the country," which mimics the flight-attendant boilerplate upon reaching cruising altitude, says more than all the anthems, slogans and heartwarming vignettes of American, Delta, United, US Airways and Northwest combined.

Delta has just ditched Saatchi & Saatchi for Leo Burnett Co. because, despite gorgeous music, the advertising said nothing. United earlier quit Burnett for Fallon McElligott; this gave us "Rising," which is at least a statement, but of what? "Bear with us. We're improving"? Meanwhile, on every delayed flight, every frequent flier mumbles to himself "Rising, my ass."

We forget Northwest's slogan, but it should be "We hate to fly and it shows."

These companies trade on puffery, of course, because the only alternative--the only way to be serious about airline advertising--is to integrate it with airline marketing. That means creating some sort of true differentiation, which means beginning not when some senior VP gets sick of the old jingle, but before the aircraft are ordered.

Delta has gone to its third agency in five years because it thought a different look might help. Sure, it's cheaper to change agencies than to repaint 500 fuselages. But maybe they should have planned long ago to actually reconfigure their planes, offer more legroom and sloganize a true brand difference along the lines of "Wide open skies," or some such. Please note: It doesn't help having 20% more seats in coach if on 80% of the flights 30% of the seats are empty.

Southwest, on the other hand, can talk about astonishingly low prices and genuinely cheerful employees. So what does it advertise? Gridiron humor.

It must be waste-the-client's-money season.

Copyright October 1999, Crain Communications Inc. ;

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