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Southwest gets value, laughs for its ad dollars

By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2003

Southwest Airlines watches nickels and dimes with a fervor that borders on the fanatical. The nation's leading low-fare carrier has never served a meal or offered a reserved seat. Flight attendants and pilots, not cleaning crews, pick up trash between trips.

But there's one place where Southwest doesn't skimp: paid advertising.

From slapstick television spots to pun-filled billboards, Southwest spends more on advertising than any of its larger competitors, often twice as much or more.

The nation's No. 6 carrier, Southwest has long relied on ads to attract its core customers: small-business travelers and leisure fliers.

Now that air travel remains in a prolonged slump, the carrier is buying even more ads, mostly on national television. Southwest targets football and hockey fans, Gasparilla enthusiasts and others who might fit the profile of a frequent flier.

The top three airlines -- American, United and Delta Air Lines -- all spend more on overall marketing. But they put much of their money on wooing high-paying corporate travelers and buying naming rights for sports arenas. Southwest relies on advertising to pitch its message to a wider audience.

"We chose to spend our money not on naming buildings . . . but to reach the eyes and ears of our customers," said Tom Kalahar, owner of Camelot Communications in Dallas, whose agency places Southwest's media buys.

Southwest spent $114-million -- $3 out of every $4 in its marketing budget -- on advertising in 2001, according to CMR/TNS Media Intelligence, which tracks corporate advertising expenditures. That far outpaced American ($71.4-million), United ($56.6-million) and Delta ($29.7-million).

Southwest spends a lot of those advertising dollars pitching its messages to sports fans.

The airline buys ads in National Football League games broadcast on Fox, CBS, ESPN and ABC's Monday Night Football. National Hockey League viewers also get a healthy dose of Southwest: two ads in each game broadcast nationally on cable and as many as four on games shown in local markets.

Southwest promotes its NFL and NHL sponsorships with humorous ads. In the "Must Be Football Season" series, wedding guests douse a bride and groom with Gatorade, and a pineapple-throwing grocery shopper knocks down a checkout clerk who calls out, "I'm open."

The strategy is based largely on demographics. Sports fans share characteristics with frequent fliers: They're an audience that's largely male and tends to travel on business. NHL viewers also are more Internet savvy than the overall population, making them a great target for ads promoting Southwest's Web site, said Joyce Rogge, the airline's senior vice president for marketing.

Sports ads also fit into Southwest's marketing plan of embracing "passion points" -- interests and events that strike an emotional chord.

"They want to be at the heart of what turns on sports fans," said Scott Becher, president of Sports and Sponsorships in Miami Beach. "Sports is a very emotional affinity. It makes perfect sense for Southwest to sell sports as a way to celebrate the experience of their customers."

Southwest doesn't limit the strategy to sports, traditionally adopting an event with unique local color upon moving into a new city. Since 1996, the airline has paid to be main sponsor of the Gasparilla festival, renamed the Southwest Airlines Gasparilla Pirate Fest in Tampa.

Southwest also gets rights to display signs, have a float in the parade and put a hospitality tent for corporate clients and guests on Bayshore Boulevard. Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla received $100,000 for parade sponsorships in 2000, according to the group's federal tax return. Southwest's fee is less than the full amount, a spokeswoman said.

The airline also targets ads by ethnicity. Southwest sponsors college football on BET and radio personality Tom Joyner, whose syndicated morning show reaches the largest urban audience in America.

"We've developed this quilt of customer segments," said Kalahar, whose agency places Southwest's advertising. "What keep us warm is that quilt working."

Southwest also spreads out advertising dollars among different media. Love Field, the airport next to the airline's Dallas headquarters, is surrounded by billboards carrying messages such as "Let's Padre," promoting travel to Padre Island on the Texas gulf coast.

But television dominates Southwest's strategy, accounting for $7 out of $10 in advertising spending. Unlike the feel-good TV ads run by other airlines, Southwest's spots often reinforce specific messages.

For business travelers: a "ticker" ad that lists flight times between two specific cities to stress frequent service.

For the impulse traveler: ads with people in embarrassing situations -- like the office worker who opens a killer computer virus -- to pitch bargain 14- and 7-day advance fares when you really need to get away.

A new ad shows the outside of a house with the sound of a clicking keyboard. A voice reminds viewers they can't book Southwest flights on popular travel sites, only the airline's own Web site.

Southwest likes ads that make people laugh. Besides entertaining viewers, the humor gives a window into a culture where Halloween is greeted with a company dressup party and flight attendants sometimes sing the preflight safety instructions.

"Southwest understands exactly who they are," said Forrest Harding, a California State University-Long Beach professor and expert on airline marketing. "They know who flies them and find something their customers consider fun."

-- Steve Huettel can be reached at or (813) 226-3384.

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