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New ads: battle of the brands

More companies go negative to grab consumers. Why it might backfire.

By Stephen HumphriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 15, 2008

Scott Wallace - staff


Burger King's new taste tests may strike McDonald's as, well, tasteless. In the TV ads, a camera crew travels to Thailand, Romania, and Greenland where indigenous people who have purportedly never eaten a hamburger are asked to compare a Whopper with a Big Mac. Of course, Burger King's product scores better than that of its golden arch rival.

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The "Whopper Virgins" commercials, which have drawn ire from some commentators for presenting its tasters as "noble savages," is one of several current ad campaigns in which one company aggressively targets a competitor.

Examples abound: A Dunkin' Donuts taste-test campaign includes taunts such as "Friends don't let friends drink Starbucks;" Verizon Fios portrays Time Warner's cable guy as a dour sad sack; and Campbell's Select Harvest pillories Progresso for including monosodium glutamate, or MSG, in its soup.

If you thought the season for attack ads ended with the election, brace yourself. These product commercials may have the patina of a friendlier tone than, say, Hillary Clinton's "3 a.m. phone call" ad, but they mean serious business in tough times. Though negative advertising carries the risk of backfiring, there's been a noticeable uptick in such campaigns, notes Emily York, a reporter for Advertising Age [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Ms. York's employer.].

"Most people will tell you it's because of the economy," says Ms. York. "There are fewer discretionary dollars out there, and you've got to sharpen up your elbows."

Of course, those elbows are covered in bubble wrap for the sake of public image. For instance, companies and advertisers prefer to label such campaigns "comparative advertising," which may seem euphemistic when the comparisons portray competitors in a bad light. To soften that blow, broadsides against another product tend to be lighthearted or couched in humor. A Campbell's ad, for example, has a caption above a can of Progresso that says, "Made with MSG," whereas its own Select Harvest is "Made with TLC."

"Comparative advertising seemed a great fit for this," says Anthony Sanzio, a spokesperson for Campbell Soup Co. "If you've looked at some of the print executions and some of the TV, it tries to have a bit of a sense of humor and a light note. I'm not sure our competitor would agree."

Indeed, Progresso was not amused. The brand, which is owned by General Mills, quickly retorted with an ad that tallied up the number of different Campbell's soups that contain MSG.

"We felt the advertising was disingenuous," says Tom Forsythe, vice president of corporate communications at General Mills. "We knew that Campbell's soups contained MSG, but the positioning of the advertising on this particular line [Select Harvest] … seemed to ignore the other soups that Campbell's also produces."

If Progresso's riposte is successful, Campbell's souped-up campaign may well backfire.

Unfortunately, the public jousting between two companies runs the larger risk of reminding consumers that many canned soups include MSG.