Scrappy Southwest has similar ad agency

The executive for another airline is found guilty in the tongue-in-cheek "fee court" proceeding.
The executive for another airline is found guilty in the tongue-in-cheek "fee court" proceeding.
Posted: January 20, 2011

For scrappy and unconventional Southwest Airlines Co., it's all about humor in advertising to deliver a message - we don't nickel and dime customers with extra fees; other airlines do.

Southwest's latest TV ad campaign, if you watch football and sporting events, is set in a courtroom where "real" passengers complain to a jury of Southwest employees about ticket-change fees of a rival carrier.

In one spot, a mother objects that it cost an extra $450 for her family to fly - on top of a fare increase - after a trip to Grandma's was postponed because her daughter fractured a leg.

"450 bucks!" gasps a juror.

"It's an honest dollar, your honor," retorts an executive from a big airline defending his case. A flight attendant in the jury box whispers: "Does his mama know what he's doing?"

The gavel bangs. The verdict is in: guilty!

The "fee court" commercials are the latest in 30 years of tongue-in-cheek advertising for Southwest by longtime ad agency GSD&M Idea City, of Austin, Texas.

Founded in 1971 by five graduates of the University of Texas in Austin, GSD&M landed the Southwest account in 1981. Founders Roy Spence and Tim McClure joke that timing is everything - they were in the right place at the right time.

They were sitting outside Southwest CEO Herb Kelleher's office the day Bob Bloom, whose agency had handled the Southwest business, stopped in to resign because he had picked up the Braniff Airways account. "And you know what happened to Braniff!" McClure said.

Kelleher stepped out of his office and said, " 'Can you guys handle an airline?' to which we, of course, answered yes," McClure said.

Southwest has always incorporated humor in its advertising. Slogans have included "just plane fun," "the somebody else up there who loves you," and "grab your bag: it's on!" The airline does not disclose what it spends on advertising.

Both the agency and the airline, the nation's largest low-fare carrier and Philadelphia's second-busiest airline, share similar cultures: work hard, have fun.

"There's an underdog spirit at Southwest, and that's similar here," said David Crawford, group creative director on the Southwest account. "Even though we are a 40-year-old agency, we look at ourselves as an up and comer. We are off the beaten path. We have to try a little harder."

In 2009, when other airlines began charging for checked luggage, seats with legroom, pillows, and blankets, Southwest did not, believing it could increase revenue and plane loads by not charging those fees.

The "bags fly free" marketing effort kicked off in the summer of 2009 with several TV commercials, showing Southwest baggage handlers in various states of incredulity that other airlines were charging customers for their bags. In one humorous spot, handlers line up on the tarmac as a plane from another airline passes. They lift their shirts to spell out "bags fly free" on their chests.

In other ads - dubbed "good cop, bag cop" - Southwest ramp workers rush out to try to pull planes over to save the bags on board from the outrageous baggage fees.

The "change fee" spots that debuted in September take other airlines to court for their change fees. The jury is Southwest employees. Three versions show passengers complaining to a judge and jury about the $150 ticket-change fee they had paid to a rival airline. "It's very effective advertising, and it carries a real message," said airline analyst James Higgins, of Soleil Securities. "They are doing what Southwest does best, which is be different and contrast themselves effectively and humorously with the rest of the industry."

"It's a message that gets through," Higgins said. "I do think that they have gained some market share because of their bags fly free policy."

GSD&M initially started with local and regional accounts, including the 1986 "Don't mess with Texas" anti-litter slogan for the Texas Department of Transportation.

In the 1990s, the agency snagged more national brands. Clients today include Goodyear, Zale Corp., L.L. Bean, MasterCard, PGA Tour, BMW, American Red Cross, AARP, John Deere, Ace Hardware, the Air Force, and Hallmark. GSD&M has 500 employees and had $72 million in revenue last year.

Between 1987 and 2007, GSD&M was one of two ad agencies for Wal-Mart.

In October 2006, Wal-Mart shifted the work to another agency - and two months later, the retailer fired two marketing executives who had led the account review and allegedly accepted gifts from the new agency.

GSD&M was invited to re-pitch the Wal-Mart business but declined.

"We helped build Wal-Mart from $11 billion in sales to $312 billion. We declare victory . . . and we are moving on," founder Roy Spence said at the time.

The agency, which in 1998 became part of the Omnicom Group, uses "purpose-based branding" with a goal of helping companies define their purpose.

In 2009, Spence coauthored It's Not What You Sell, It's What You Stand For, which suggested that the key to high-performing companies is that they have a purpose - a definitive statement about the difference they are trying to make in the world.

"Southwest is standing for what's right for customers, and that's its purpose," said ad creative director Crawford. "Their approach is really couched in a purpose that's beyond how much money they are going to make. They still want to make money.

"Companies still have shareholders, but there's a little deeper purpose than just the almighty dollar."

Anyway, that's the advertising pitch.

Watch the Southwest Airlines Fee Court commercials on the company's YouTube page via

Contact staff writer Linda Loyd at 215-854-2831 or

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