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Let's say a young regional airline contrived, in a freshly deregulated market, to minimize costs and operate profitably as a low-fare carrier. Hypothetically.

And let's say a protracted economic slump came along that devastated other carriers, making the low-fare airline doubly attractive to suddenly cost-obsessed business travelers, resulting in dramatically increased demand and expansion to 44 markets.

Three things might happen.

1. The airline's found-er would be lionized as a business visionary, and accorded cover-boy status like that of a heavy metal rocker, only with fewer trashed hotel rooms.

2. Competitors, saddled with onerous labor agreements and generally burdensome cost structures, would scramble to mimic the low-service, fast-turnaround formula that propelled the hypothetical regional.

3. To be announced.

First, let's take a look at the first-ever national TV ad campaign for Southwest Airlines from Cramer-Krasselt, Chicago.

"Southwest Airlines will NOT lose a fare war. We have low operating costs, so we can offer you low fares on a regular basis," says visionary CEO Herb Kelleher, identified as "commander in chief" and speaking from a mocked-up war room, with "Wild Blue Yonder" playing in the background.

"It's not a gimmick, it's not a promotion with us. It's something we believe in with all of our fiber. It's every seat, every flight, everywhere we fly. Other airlines try to copy Southwest, but they're just facsimiles of the real thing. Southwest is THE low-fare airline. If there's a fare war, they're gonna get nuked."

Nuked? What charming imagery from the "commander," amid martial music, as we head for the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima. At least Kelleher is smiling when he says it, so let's just dismiss it as good-natured, juvenile business macho.

In this case, substance triumphs over style. Whereas other airlines are reduced to meaningless drivel-"It begins with you loving the way we fly the friendly skies and it shows," or some such-Southwest is able to make a concrete claim, positioning itself while pre-empting competitors.

Apart from Kelleher's 30-second battle cry, three low-fare 15-second spots hammer home the message. One compares the Southwest logo to trademarks for 100% cotton garments and 100% dairy "real" cheese. For the genuine low-fare carrier, the announcer says, as we see a logo-emblazoned Southwest tail section, "Always check the label."

Thus does a feisty little airline announce its intention to become a feisty big airline. Which, if the trend continues, may well occur. But the genius of this campaign is that it also establishes a fallback position in the hypothetical event that ...

3. The economy would boom and the pendulum swing back, whereupon business travelers would get fed up with open seating, limited baggage service and being fed not at all. Whereupon some new airline visionary would make the cover of Fortune by giving passengers preassigned seating and hot meals in flight. Whereupon our hypothetical low fare airline would install microwave ovens, for nuking, and-its positioning long since taken hold-comfortably fill a low-fare, not-quite-so-low service niche forever and ever.

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