New ads: battle of the brands

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

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.

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.

"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.

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."

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