The Spot: Frequent Fliers

Southwest Airlines knocks people around to illustrate the perils of business travel

IDEA: You are now free to move about the obstacle course—but be ready to get punched and pushed into a sea of grubby water or a pit of scorching foam. Yes, the new Southwest Airlines ads are long on comical violence and short on patience for how rival carriers treat their business passengers. Modeled on campy shows like Wipeout, the "Business Travel Challenge" spots by GSD&M show executives in protective gear attempting ludicrous physical challenges, with hazards that represent travel headaches—baggage fees, seating restrictions, blackout dates and so on. The Southwest travelers, offered better services and routes, emerge unscathed. But those who fly the other airlines are sent flying by giant swinging dollar signs and spring-loaded calendar squares—a metaphor for the tangled state of the airline industry in general. "Beyond being just funny, we wanted to make something that was as ridiculous as the industry itself," said GSD&M creative director Bill Marceau. "It's literally a game you can't win, unless you fly Southwest."

COPYWRITING: Each spot features a single challenge built around a specific Southwest benefit. The ads are narrated by two announcers, a play-by-play guy and a color commentator who set up the premise and describe the action. "Ooh, he's getting pummeled with bag fees! He just got the bag-fee beat down!" says the color man in one spot as a traveler and his golf bag are thumped off a platform. "Our second contestant is flying Southwest," the play-by-play man adds. "No bag fees for this guy. You gotta give it up for 'bags fly free.' " All the spots end with the voiced line, "Business travelers win with Southwest." The dialogue is ESPN-like, with some business jargon thrown in.

ART DIRECTION/FILMING: Production designer Bruce McCloskey oversaw the building of the obstacle courses over three weeks at the Agua Dulce Movie Ranch, north of Los Angeles. "It was impressive to come around the crest of the hill and see this expanse of courses we had designed. It was really fulfilling to see our drawings come to life on such a large scale," said creative director Bill Bayne. Director Mike Maguire shot for six days in oppressively hot conditions. There is no CGI whatsoever—everything was shot in camera. And there were plenty of cameras—as many as a dozen for each shot, from GoPros to Sony HDs to units on cranes. "Mike had one of those Monday Night Football trucks, where he was parked and looking through 11 different pairs of eyes on each take," said Marceau. Color plays a major role, pitting grays against lots of trademark Southwest yellow.

TALENT: The contestants are all stuntmen and women, tested at a martial-arts dojo, where they were hit by heavy bags and thrown into huge pits. No one was hurt during filming, although the six-foot-deep foam pits proved unexpectedly perilous; in the 115-degree desert temperatures, the foam became scalding about three feet down. "We really put the stunt guys through the wringer, and some of the best stuff couldn't even be shown on air," said Maguire. "The footage I loved was pretty hysterical, but maybe went a bit far for the client's threshold." As usual, actual Southwest employees play themselves. The voiceover guys auditioned together and had "a charm and a charisma and a likeability," said Bayne.

SOUND: Funny, faux-epic original music by Matt Downs plays throughout. The editor, Erin Nordstrom, helped find appropriately cartoony sound effects for collisions and falls, adding to the humor.

MEDIA: Eight spots will roll out between now and the end of January. Digital work from VML includes banners that let the user pick camera angles to watch a fall. The campaign also includes in-airport signage, print and radio ads.

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