Palance and poetry? It couldn't be verse

By Published on .

Advertiser: Southwest Airlines
Agency: GSD&M, Austin, Texas
Ad Review rating: 1 1/2 stars

Here's the definition of horror: turning on the TV and seeing, in ultra close-up, Jack Palance, in cowboy garb, talk-singing about air travel.

I'll tell you children how it was
Before the skies were freed.
To fly somewhere, you needed wealth.
It was a luxury.
Then Southwest Airlines came along
And democratized the skies.
Now every man, woman and child
Is free to pack up and fly.
One day soon we'll fly to the moon
If that's where you'll need to be.
Now we've got to get back to business, boys,
Settin' the country free.
Sorry, boys, that ol' doggerel won't hunt.
To get the full effect of the poetic genius behind these verses, you really have to say them aloud without tripping on your tongue. It's like trying to touch your elbow to your ear.

Oh, don't take this wrong. Of course I'd like to see a preening poster-child for geriatric testosterone-poisoning recite insipid, mis-metered rhymes with the camera so close to his face you can almost smell his stinking breath--provided there isn't a more tempting option, such as an evening of "Chevy Chase Show" reruns.

Or death.

I haven't had such a chill of naked revulsion in six months, at which time I was being kidnapped by masked men at gunpoint. That, at least, I was able to escape. Southwest has a $20 million budget and no immediate plans to get this creepy movie cowboy away from us.

Jack Palance? A spokesman? One aftershave commercial is maybe understandable, but a spokesman? This man has essentially the same effect on the nerve endings as shingles, with the principal difference being that shingles can be treated with steroids.

OK, sure, his persona is the rugged individualist who savors the freedom of the open prairie. He's the defiant maverick, the fearsome loner with snarling contempt for the restraints of citified society.

But so is Ted Kaczynski, and we don't see USAir chasing after him.

And having enlisted the image of one of Hollywood's most obnoxious personalities, GSD&M, Austin, Texas, gives him cowboy poetry verse to recite--or half-sing, or rap, or whatever you might call the horseback Rex Harrison style of delivery--that is so stunningly awful, metrically challenged and badly looped that you think they must be kidding.

And maybe they are.

But it ain't funny, boys, it ain't. It's just frightening.

And it's kind of a shame, because the campaign is conceptually sound. These spots aim to reposition Southwest, which until now has been synonymous with low fares, but which is facing price competition from other carriers. The idea is to promulgate a new brand image of affordable access, for the average traveler, to almost anywhere.

"Southwest. A symbol of freedom" is the tagline, and fair enough. Democracy of the skies is a powerful concept--if the advertising can communicate its significance, which these preposterous first two spots do not.

Although, at one point, they're close. In one of the ads, we do see Palance walking the open range, reciting about freedom, as he prepares to head off on his mount. This turns out to be a Southwest jet, which he sits astride, Slim Pickens-like, twirling his Stetson.

The idea is strong, my friends, you see,
Of getting air travel back
For the common man. But, jeez, let's hear it
From anyone but Jack.

Copyright October 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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