Southwest Airlines tout NHL sponsorship

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Southwest Airlines takes hockey off the ice and into other arenas in a campaign breaking this week that touts the carrier's new sponsorship of the National Hockey League.

The TV effort that breaks Jan. 4 on ESPN2 uses a tack similar to Southwest's much-talked-about "Must be football season" efforts that have run at the beginning of each pro football season since 1998.

The humorous hockey spots have one major difference from the "Football" work: They use actual footage from NHL games, while the spots plugging the link with the National Football League use only actors.

The hockey ads feature four scenes where people struggle to perform seemingly mundane tasks. After they fail, the spots cut to NHL players effortlessly doing similar things.

In one spot, a man tries to hop a subway turnstile but falls over face-first. Viewers then see NHL performers gracefully hop from the bench onto the rink (not coincidentally, the players leap over a Southwest ad).

Another spot shows a man and a woman battling for the last cookie after a business meeting, then it cuts to players engaged in a face-off. Other scenes involve a deliveryman slamming into a glass door followed by an NHL player slamming an opponent into the glass around the rink, and a landscaper unable to catch gloves thrown to him by a co-worker followed by a goalie who makes a smooth stop of a puck.

The actual footage was needed for the hockey spots because the style and idiosyncrasies of the game are not as well known as those in football. "[Hockey] doesn't have the familiarity that football does," said Dianna Howell, account director at Southwest's longtime agency GSD&M, Austin Texas. "It's not as universal."

With fewer casual fans to appeal to, Southwest shifted slightly from a "we love the game" message with football to a "we know the game" one with hockey, which hard-core fans might appreciate.

The ads linked with both sports attempt to create a bridge in consumers' minds between sports they follow and Southwest: The goal is for fans to demonstrate a similar devotion to both. The ads try to humanize Southwest, where employees are known to be friendly and a bit light-hearted, and portray the low-cost carrier as a fun airline - distinct from the more stern images attached to some competitors.

"Southwest ties in well with sports because [the employees] are passionate about what they do, and they're fun-loving and good-natured," Ms. Howell said.

The two 30-second spots, each with two vignettes, include the on-screen assertion, "It's tougher than it looks."

The NHL ads will run during hockey broadcasts on Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 and are expected to air through the Stanley Cup Finals in June. Southwest, which according to Competitive Media Reporting spent some $112 million on measured media in 1999, in August inked a four-year deal to serve as the official airline of the NHL, adding that cachet to its official sponsorship role with the NFL.

The NHL spots mark the beginning of a busy year for Southwest on the marketing front. The airline is expected launch a spring campaign touting its 30th year in business, and it will use ESPN sportscaster Chris Berman as part of its "Want to get away?" ads promoting Southwest's low fares. Mr. Berman previously has been part of the airline's Super Bowl sweepstakes promotions, but he hasn't played a role in the retail-driven effort until now.

Copyright December 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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