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New ads: battle of the brands

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

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"The ironic thing is that it has made me much more attentive to the actual labels," says Norman Bowie, who holds the Elmer L. Andersen Chair in Corporate Responsibility at the University of Minnesota.

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When Professor Bowie went to buy a Campbell's product, he suddenly noticed it contained more sodium than he was comfortable with. Other consumers may take the ad claims with a grain of salt. If anything, the soup wars may encourage shoppers to buy alternative products or tune out the ads altogether.

Campbell's Select Harvest is waging war on Progresso on another front. It claims its soup won an independent taste test. Similarly, Dunkin' Donuts, Miller Lite, and Burger King cite taste tests as proof that their product is superior to Starbucks, Bud Lite, and McDonald's,

respectively. That approach has at least one great precedent. Pepsi's taste-test strategy was so successful in the 1980s that Coca-Cola changed its ingredients and foisted New Coke on an uncaring world.

But should consumers believe in taste tests? Contentious ad claims have to pass muster with the National Advertising Review Board (NARB), an independent arbiter for the industry. The Federal Trade Commission also stipulates that comparative advertisements must be truthful and that advertisers must be able to substantiate objective claims. Even so, there's a conflict of interest if the company sponsoring the ad is paying a taste-test research group, says Bowie at the University of Minnesota. If his assessment is correct, the "Whopper Virgin" commercials may not be as innocent as they appear.

Negative advertising carries another risk: It's free publicity for the other brand, observes Paul Hensel, a professor of marketing at the University of New Orleans. But in an economic downturn, companies with reduced marketing budgets may opt for edgy tactics.

That's especially true of saturated markets where there are only so many consumers willing to buy, say, canned soup or cups of coffee, says Monle Lee, a professor of marketing at Indiana University, South Bend, who cowrote "Principles of Advertising." Those businesses believe they can only thrive by hooking a competitor's customers through attack ads.

Madison Avenue may have had another reason for the timing of such campaigns. "After the recent extremely negative and ugly political season, consumers are a bit more accepting of these ads," says Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries, a marketing strategy firm in Atlanta. But negative ads are no way to build a brand in the long term, says Ms. Ries, coauthor of "The Origin of Brands." Moreover, too many companies fall back on attack ads to disguise the fact their own product or service really isn't all that different from that of a competitor.

One notable exception: Apple's Mac versus PC commercials, which prompted Microsoft to counter with its "I am a PC" TV spots.

"The Mac ads clearly stand out. They're truly different because that brand stands for something," says Ries. "Unless there's a clear, definitive, and understandable difference, you should never do negative ads. It just makes you look bad."