Humour, rationale key to comparative ads

Humour, rationale key to comparative ads

Indian advertising for colas, aerated beverages, cars and detergents, among others, has always been rife with comparative claims and innuendo. The recent Horlicks versus Complan ad spat, however, went a notch higher, with each side actually naming the rival brand in spots claiming higher nutritional value. Globally, the recent Domino’s ads claimed that people preferred its hot subs (sandwiches) “two-to-one" versus Subway.

The National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus in the US was quoted in overseas reports some months ago as saying that more companies are using ads to mock their rivals, especially on night television. Examples cited included a Campbell’s Soup ad labelling a can of Progresso: “Made with MSG" (MSG stands for monosodium glutamate, usually found in canned foods).

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Some of them sound quite funny, and that perhaps is the secret of good comparative advertising: Make them smile and buy. Madhukar Kamath, chief executive officer, Mudra Communications Pvt. Ltd, agrees the competition will be named increasingly, but as long as the rationale is right and the ad informs consumers—helping them make a better choice—there’s nothing wrong.

One thing is certainly true—competitive pricing and messaging will be more prevalent as consumers tighten belts, says Jon Wilkins, co-founder of independent agency Naked Communications Ltd. His forecast: This will be particularly apparent in service-based businesses, where price promise is a clear differentiator. Airlines will start pricing more aggressively, supermarkets and retailers are already in the throes of one continuous sale and finance is awash with competitive offerings.

Will this help the consumer navigate the best offers? asks Wilkins. “My fear is, potentially not, as the ‘white noise’ around pricing becomes so prevalent that consumers start switching out altogether," he says. “So, where does that leave the world of branding? Well, holding on to price promises could be a good route forward: John Lewis (a retail chain) in the UK famously used the promise ‘never knowingly undersold’—where they agreed to price-match in all the categories they stocked products."

Brands that will nail it in 2009 are brands that do it faster, better, smarter, and with a lot more agility than the competition. This includes comparative ads, says Scott Goodson, founder and chief executive of independent agency StrawberryFrog. He charts comparative advertising’s long history in the US, “It came on the scene in the 1970s with Pepsi—the challenger to Coke, and the ‘Pepsi Generation’, which did an amazing job of repositioning Coke as my father’s drink and Pepsi as the drink of the youth." From this, other American brands saw Pepsi’s success as smart thinking. Europeans have been reluctant to use these tactics, he says. In Europe, advertising has been more of an art than a science. But the current economic conditions may break that old tradition, says Goodson.

The problem with comparative ads in the US is that nowadays, too many brands are doing it. So, it’s really difficult for the consumer to react the same way a Pepsi consumer did back in the 1970s. While comparative ads can help you position yourself against the competition, it is increasingly more difficult to break through, warns Goodson. India, of course, is still in the early stages of such noise, but we can expect more competitive value-base claims.

His advice for the comparative game:

Comparative ads are better for brands that are playing catch-up. You would never use comparative ads if you’re the leader because you’re bringing the competition into the discussion.

If you’re a challenger brand and clearly the better product, you have the right to tell consumers, but over time, with brands being able to play catch-up, it’s hard to sustain comparative ads. Comparative ads also tend to make a brand feel defensive, so you need to do it with humour.

Comparative action will naturally permeate all spheres. As Mythili Chandrasekar, senior vice-president and executive planning director at agency JWT India, says, it is not so much about advertising but about competitive value, particularly at this time.

“Even when the economy is booming, Indians are very demanding in the content-value equation that we seek in products, so god help us now," she says. In her view, product or performance information and minute differences or advantages in content may get picked up for messaging.

Expect some more bare-knuckled action in the ad ring.

Marion Arathoon is Mint’s advertising editor. Your comments are welcome at