How An Arm Wrestling Match Won A Copyright Dispute

By Heather Ramsey on Saturday, November 28, 2015
Mature businessman arm wrestling
“We LOVE your new ads that use the clever, creative, effective “Plane Smart” theme! We can testify to its effectiveness since we’ve been using it in our own ads for a long time.” —Beginning of a Stevens Aviation letter to Southwest Airlines proposing an arm wrestling match

In A Nutshell

The contestants weren’t professional wrestlers. Instead, it was a 1992 PR matchup between Herb Kelleher, CEO of Southwest Airlines, and Kurt Herwald, CEO of Stevens Aviation called the “Malice in Dallas.” They were battling over the copyright to the phrase “Just Plane Smart,” which both companies had been using. Foregoing litigation, they settled it with a humorous arm wrestling match, in which Herwald ultimately won ownership of the slogan.

The Whole Bushel

They called it the “Malice in Dallas,” a best-of-three wrestling match held in the deteriorating Dallas Sportatorium arena on March 23, 1992. By the way, that’s arm wrestling and the contestants weren’t professionals. They were two crazy CEOs of different US companies who wanted to settle a copyright dispute without lawyers, but with humor and a whole lot of publicity. They were battling over the right to use the phrase “Just Plane Smart” in their advertising.

The two CEOs were Herb Kelleher of Texas-based Southwest Airlines and Kurt Herwald of South Carolina–based Stevens Aviation, an aircraft sales company. Kelleher was a 61-year-old, larger-than-life character who kicked off the first flights of Southwest Airlines in 1971 with unconventional but memorable marketing campaigns. The airline’s inexpensive fares were accompanied by cheerleading flight attendants in hot pants and go-go boots and the slogan “Long Legs and Short Nights.” In 1977, Southwest went public with the stock symbol “LUV.”

Over the years, Southwest continued to use humor in its advertising as a successful come-on to customers. Then, in 1990, the company began plastering the slogan “Just Plane Smart” all over its commercials, T-shirts, and posters.

But there was a problem. Stevens Aviation was already using that slogan. Even though Southwest didn’t know it, they were potentially infringing on Stevens’s copyright. The lawyers at Stevens wanted to sue, but their CEO had a better idea to settle the dispute.

He challenged Kelleher to an old-fashioned duel in a newfangled way—with a volley of snail mail. Pretending to be his executive vice president, Stephen Townes, Herwald sent the first letter challenging Kelleher to an arm wrestling match between the two CEOs with the champion winning the right to use the “Just Plane Smart” slogan.

Herwald added the P.S.: “Our chairman is a burly 38-year-old former weight lifter who can bench press a King Air.” (A King Air is a type of airplane.)

Unwilling to cower in the face of such strength, Kelleher replied with his own frightening note:

“Dear Mr. Townes,

Our chairman can bench press a quart of Wild Turkey and five packs of cigarettes a day. He is also a fearsome competitor who resorts to kicking, biting, gouging, scratching, and hair pulling in order to win. When really pressed, he has also been known to beg, plead, whine, and sob piteously. Can your pusillanimous little wimp of a chairman stand up against the martial valor of our giant?”

Stevens Aviation wasn’t about to let that kind of trash talk go unanswered. They replied with force.

“Dear Mr. Kelleher:

Our valiant chairman, Kurt Herwald . . . will set a date with you soon for the showdown of the century. By the way, what does ‘pusillanimous’ mean?”

(For the record, “pusillanimous” means “weak and afraid of danger.”)

Kelleher played his role for all the publicity he could get. And he got a lot. He released training videos, and on the day of the match, he strode into the match in a bathrobe to the theme from Rocky with cheerleaders all around him shaking their pom-poms.

Herwald was worried he would lose his dignity and so was initially reluctant to wear his red satin cape and engage in pro wrestling theatrics. But the pro wrestlers hired to train him set him straight, and he later said that he learned to lighten up and be himself. He also learned that these crazy antics fired up his employees and contributed to a huge boost in sales for his company—from $28 million to more than $100 million in the following four years. Herwald also discovered that settling a copyright claim with humor and friendship was a lot more profitable and fun than going to court.

“Smokin'” Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines technically lost the match that day. But in post-match interviews from a stretcher, Kelleher explained that if it hadn’t been for his athlete’s feet, broken wrist, and head cold, he would have been victorious. However, Kurt “Killer” Herwald was gracious in defeat. He agreed to share the disputed slogan with Southwest Airlines. Best of all, the companies donated $10,000 to the Muscular Dystrophy Association and $5,000 to the Ronald McDonald House of Cleveland.

Show Me The Proof

The Baltimore Sun: Aviation executives ‘plug’ it out for rights to slogan
Inc: 3 Lasting Lessons from Malice in Dallas
Workplace Psychology: Leadership, Southwest Airlines, and Malice in Dallas
Priceonomics: How Southwest Airlines Settled a Legal Dispute with Arm Wrestling
Inc: Real Men Don’t Litigate

  • Joseph

    That was the worst “proof” I’ve ever seen in my life. Maybe Borderlands happened too.