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The Gloves Are Off: More Marketers Opt for Attack Ads

Comparison Spots Move the Sales Needle for Campbell, Domino's

By Published on . 11

CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- It's going to be a cruel summer in advertising. Attack ads have been on the rise for the past year, but comparisons are getting sharper, responses are growing testier, and an increasing number of ad battles are ending up in court. Just don't expect a letup, because they're also working.

Campbell Soup Co. actually released its third-quarter earnings a day early last week to disprove analyst reports, including one from UBS's David Palmer, that its comparative ads with rival Progresso had brought down the entire category. Not so, said Campbell: Its condensed-soup sales rose 2% in the third quarter.

True, the category in which its Select Harvest soup -- pitted against Progresso in hard-hitting ads from BBDO, New York -- resides posted a 7% sales decrease during the quarter. But Campbell blamed pricier "convenience" items, such as cups and bowls, and said in the past nine months, its condensed-soup sales jumped 6%, and ready-to-serve soups 4%. "Select Harvest sales are strong, it was a very successful launch," said spokesman Anthony Sanzio. "In large part we think it's due to the successful advertising."

And the case might be made that negative advertising floated all boats in the category. In March, General Mills' Progresso, which touted its products as "healthier and better tasting" in a campaign from agency Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, crowed that its soup sales were up 3% and the brand was continuing to gain share.

Dominos, too, benefited from bashing a rival. Its ads claimed its subs had beaten Subway in a national taste test. When Subway responded with a cease-and-desist letter, Domino's President David Brandon burned the letter in a TV spot. Domino's even issued a press release asking, "Did you know Domino's was in a food fight?" The chain reported a 1% same-store-sales gain for the quarter, which CFO Wendy Beck said was "our first positive domestic comp in quite some time."

Setting brands apart
It's a bit harder to judge the success of the "Dunkin' Beat Starbucks" broadside that touted the results of a national taste test last fall: Dunkin' is a private company and does not release same-store sales. Dunkin' swapped the line for the more uplifting "You Kin' Do It" in January. Brand Marketing Officer Frances Allen has said the fall campaign accomplished its goals and may be resuscitated in the future.

Certainly, well-executed campaigns can boost sales, said Andy Jung, a media and marketing consultant and past senior director of media-advertising services at Kellogg Co. And Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Business, said negative campaigns can be necessary when a business is under pressure. "The appeal of comparative advertising is to set yourself apart," he said, adding that marketers who find points of difference that matter to consumers can strike gold. These days, he said, "marketers are under so much pressure to improve their market share that they're becoming really aggressive."

The million-dollar question, he said, is: "Do you get more for your money talking about the attributes of your brand or going after your competitor?" It's tough to say, especially as "a lot of these lead to litigation."

Sara Lee sued Kraft just last week over claims that Kraft's Oscar Mayer beat Sara Lee's Ball Park in a taste test. In the complaint, Sara Lee states that Kraft used Ball Park Beef Franks to conduct the taste test, but the ad copy insinuates that Oscar Mayer beat the entire Ball Park product line.

According to the suit, representations made by the Oscar Mayer campaign "have caused, are causing, and are likely to continue to cause substantial and irreparable injury to Sara Lee, including damage to Sara Lee's Ball Park hot dog sales, profits, business relationships, reputation and goodwill." The marketer is seeking an injunction, corrective advertising, damages, punitive damages, enhanced damages, disgorgement of profits and legal fees.

"We stand by our reputation for accurate advertising to consumers," Kraft spokeswoman Sydney Lindner said in a statement, adding that Oscar Mayer sells more hot dogs than any other brand.

According to Information Resources Inc., however, Ball Park is the top dog in grocery stores, with $327 million in sales for the 52 weeks ended April 19. Oscar Mayer is in second place, with $300 million. IRI data do not include Walmart or club stores.

Before you throw the gauntlet ...

While comparative advertising can boost sales when done well, you risk getting sued or alienating consumers when you go after a rival.

1. Don't name your competitor
Bruce Brown, an attorney with Baker Hostetler in Washington, said claims attacking vague targets such as "some of our competitors" are a lot less likely to end up in court.

2. Stay positive
Focus on a positive attribute such as "tastes better" rather than a potentially nauseating claim such as "less fatty," said Andy Jung, a media and marketing consultant. He pointed to Tylenol's battle with Advil in 1996, when each brand attacked side effects associated with the other's medications. The ads drove down sales in the entire category.

3. Back it up with science
Consumers have become increasingly savvy, and if a claim sounds fishy, Mr. Jung said, said they're going to check your methodology.

4. Have a contingency plan
If something goes wrong and you have to pull your spot, you don't want a bunch of empty airtime, said marketing professor Tim Calkins.

5. Don't steal your competitor's claims
That's always a bad idea, said Michael Mallow, an attorney with Loeb & Loeb, Los Angeles.

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