Southwest Caught in Tainted Water with SeaWorld Over Longtime Partnership

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Blackfish, shortlisted for an Academy Award Best Documentary nomination, chronicles the life of SeaWorld’s largest killer whale, Tilikum, who killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in February 2010, as well as two others in previous incidents. 

The controversial film includes behind the scenes footage of SeaWorld’s orca shows, including shocking footage of the species’ cruel treatment in captivity and the pressures of the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry to exploit the animals. 

SeaWorld called the film by Gabriela Cowperthwaite “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate,” as a surge of petitions and protests surfaced on social media.

But there’s an unlikely brand caught in the crosshairs: Southwest Airlines.[more]

The airline’s relationship with SeaWorld dates back to 1988, when the marine-carnival operator opened a theme park in San Antonio. The two brands formed a marketing alliance including discount fares and co-branding of three planes to depict the color patterns of the park’s famed orca whales.

The alliance has continued throughout the years, with Southwest Airlines introducing a new Boeing 737-700 plane last year covered with penguins as SeaWorld toured two of its penguins around the country to its various parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego. (SeaWorld caught flack from PETA most recently for its penguin tour in NYC.)

Since the debut of the film, Southwest has endured consumer complaints and protests for its partnership, with a petition calling for the company to cut ties with SeaWorld garnering nearly 30,000 signatures since October 2013. It states in part: “SeaWorld has a long history of abusing animals and covering up injuries sustained by trainers. Southwest Airlines has been a cheerleader for this cruelty by partnering with SeaWorld for 25 years.” 

Southwest, which is known for its good public relationsposted a statement on its website: “At this time, our partnership with SeaWorld will continue. We are engaged with SeaWorld related to the recent concerns being raised. We are in a listening and education mode.”

“The question is what happens next? It may seem a bit unfair for Southwest to be held responsible for something that is not directly under their control. But with rising concern about their partner’s behavior, the pressure is on to take a stance one way or another,” Triple Pundit muses

Meanwhile, SeaWorld’s marine parks saw record attendance levels for October through December 2013 and will report record revenues for 2013, raking in $1.46 billion.

“Ultimately, the true test of the Blackfish effect is whether over time it has any appreciable impact on SeaWorld’s bottom line,” writes National Geographic. “SeaWorld is a business, and real change will come if and when SeaWorld concludes it will make more money moving away from the killer whale entertainment business than it will trying to continue it. If that happens, Blackfish will have a life beyond the impact it has had on audiences, and the Blackfish effect will have meaning.” 

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