Fly the Branded Skies

Jingle: Southwest Airlines “Just Say When” (1985)

Fly Southwest - Just Say When

Listen: Southwest Airlines: “Just Say When”

One of the most appealing attributes of Southwest’s brand is its self-awareness. At a time when other airlines were depicting air travel as a luxurious experience, Southwest made promises it could deliver. It just so happened that what Southwest could deliver was what a lot of passengers really wanted anyway: frequent, convenient flights. This post is about the time when Southwest grew up.

Just Say When print advertisementI think “Just Say When” marks a turning point in Southwest’s history. The airline was growing. It couldn’t rely on hotpants anymore to fill seats. Nor was the carrier’s previous tagline, “You’re Gonna Love That Southwest Spirit,” enough any longer. Southwest was hitting the big time.

By 1985, Southwest had grown from a route network entirely enclosed within the state of Texas to a much larger one that stretched east to New Orleans, north to Chicago, and west to San Francisco. The company was well its way to being a major national carrier. And so it did what major national carriers do: it went after business travelers.

That’s not to say that Southwest ever lost its spirit. But it did shift the focus of its advertising. “Just Say When” highlighted frequency and the convenience of Southwest’s point-to-point network. If you’re a business traveler, liable to change your plans at the last minute, these are very attractive features. Even better than hotpants!

The tagline “Just Say When” launched as a fare promotion introducing service to Chicago Midway in early 1985. It was apparently so successful that the airline pulled the campaign a few weeks early after getting 41,000 reservation calls the first day.1 In fact, they’d booked nearly half the seats available on the new routes by noon.((Carolin Talmadge, “SW airlines loses spirit,” Advertising Age [4 March 1985]))

From there, the campaign launched to 19 of Southwest’s 24 markets, with four TV spots and 30 radio spots tailored to specific routes.2 None of these spots appears to have made it online, but AdAge helpfully included a partial transcript of a commercial in which two detectives try to figure out how a suspect is moving around the country so easily:

Jacoby: 7 a.m. He’s leaving Chicago’s Midway Airport for St. Louis.
12.15 p.m. Subject leaves St. Louis for Houston.
10.45 p.m. Our boy’s back in Chicago. We’re turning up hundreds of these.
Lamar: How do they do it?
Jacoby: We’re checking it out.
Lamar: How can these people afford to move around so easily? It’s all too convenient.
Jacoby: We’re overlooking something.

This seems very similar to a later spot from 1986, when Southwest Airlines extended the idea behind “Just Say When” to suggest that Southwest is so convenient, it’s like having a Company Plane.

“Just Say When” spent several years as Southwest’s main theme line. It seemed to resonate. In 1988, America West launched a campaign attacking Southwest by name for its no-frills service. A print ad under the headline “Just say when?” asked when Southwest would start serving cocktails, assigning seats, and “treating me like a person.” The television commercials featured purported Southwest Airlines flyers who were ashamed to show their faces.3

Southwest’s response was classic Herb Kelleher:

Airline: Southwest Airlines
Title: “Just Say When”
Agency: GSD&M, Austin, Texas
Written By: Janis Smythe4
Year: 1985

When your plans keep changing,
you know you’re not alone.
There’s time for rearranging.
Pick up the nearest phone.

Just say when!
When you want to go, when you want to fly.
Just say when!
Let Southwest take you to the sky.
Just say when!
By now you know we’ve got more flights.
We’re Southwest Airlines!
Just say when!


Just say when!
When you want to go, when you want to fly.
Fly Southwest Airlines!
Just say when! 

  1. Cheryl McClenahan, “Do ads work? Just ask these airlines,” Advertising Age [4 March 1985] []
  2. Candace Talmadge, “Southwest push takes to the air,” Advertising Age [4 March 1985] []
  3. Judy Schriener, “America West plays Southwest’s game,” Advertising Age [7 November 1988] []
  4. According to ISWC []