Perhaps it's the tight economy and the idea that the way to grow in a recession is at the expense of your rivals; maybe the presidential candidates have set the tone for TV advertising; or it could be the influence of those masterful and highly effective Mac vs. PC spots. Whatever the reasons, comparative ads -- some of them pretty aggressive -- are all the rage.
First there were the Dyson vs. Hoover ads, the Miller Lite vs. Bud Light spots (remember the Dalmatian leaping off a truck?) and Huggies vs. Pampers (delivering a literal brickbat with a spot showing a mom diapering a brick).
Now Time Warner has said it will go after Verizon in its new campaign, serving a counterpunch to its rival's claim that Fios internet service is "10 times faster than cable." In a seeming homage to the Apple ads, the Fios spots feature its installer humorously interacting with a hapless cable installer.
Meanwhile, as anyone with eyes and a TV set will be all too aware, Microsoft is coming back at Steve Jobs and Co. with a couple of ads that effectively characterize Mac as lacking individuality and accuse Apple of stereotyping those poor PC users. (By going after Apple, they've prompted Mac to take the gloves off too -- one new spot from Apple shop TBWA/Media Arts Lab depicts Microsoft as covering up its flaws by spending all its money on advertising rather than on fixing Vista.)
The Microsoft ads come, of course, courtesy of Crispin Porter & Bogusky, which is also responsible for another aggressive attack on a rival. In a campaign for Burger King, men dressed as BK sandwiches are offered baked potatoes at a Wendy's drive-thru. "A baked potato?" exclaims Whopper Jr. "Are we in Russia?"
Punch to the gut
Taste tests, too, are back. General Mills' Progresso is attacking Campbell's for MSG content in ads from Saatchi & Saatchi, New York. Campbell is running commercials via agency BBDO, New York,* that show a blindfolded woman singing the praises of the company's Select Harvest soup and dismissing its "watery"-tasting rival. The company has also touted the results of an "independent taste test" last week in which two out of three people preferred Campbell's Select Harvest to Progresso.
Dunkin' Donuts jumped into the fray last week, mounting an assault on Starbucks based on another "independent taste test," in which consumers preferred their coffee to that of the java giant.
It's backing the claim with a series of broadcast spots from Hill Holliday, Boston. The spots are based on the results of a double-blind survey the company commissioned from A&G Research this summer in 10 major cities, including Starbucks' hometown, Seattle. Of the 476 adults surveyed, 54% preferred Dunkin', 39% preferred Starbucks and 6% had no preference. Dunkin's work builds on earlier spots poking fun at Starbucks' snob factor, such as the Italian names it has for its espresso beverages and drink sizes.
At a dedicated microsite, dunkinbeatstarbucks.com, consumers can stage interventions for friends who are spending too much on their coffee. They can also "spread the truth" by sending e-cards with messages such as "Friends don't let friends drink Starbucks." Dunkin' Chief Branding Officer Frances Allen said the current financial situation in the country calls for "sharper messaging."
"You always have to be more empathetic with your consumer," Ms. Allen said. "It's very important in a tough economy that you understand what your consumer is facing and what they need and want, and that you deliver against that." And, she said, it's important not to get nasty. "When you do comparison advertising it has to be fun and lighthearted."
Apple, too, has shown restraint here, and has even made the "PC" character in its ads somewhat more likable -- if slightly pathetic -- than his more arrogant "Mac" counterpart. But Ms. Allen and her agency said they were not influenced by the Mac guy -- or anyone else -- in their decision to call out Starbucks. "We're not trying to be a part of any wave or trend or anything like that," said Steve Briggs of Hill Holliday. The trend to spirited, comparative advertising, he said, "is sort of immaterial."
Starbucks didn't respond to requests for comment by press time.
"Comparative advertising is almost always an underdog's game," said Julie Hennessy, a marketing professor at Northwestern University. The risks are too big for industry leaders. "Even when they win, they pay to build awareness of their competitor," she said. "If I'm bigger than you and run advertising because I'm better than you, a certain number of people who haven't heard of the upstart learn about them."
Still, with giant Microsoft accepting that it needed to do something about pesky little Apple; the cable and satellite services slugging it out regardless of their size; and top brands such as Dunkin' and Campbell's on the offense, this could be a whole new era for the comparative ads.
Of course, comparative ads are far from new. Burger King itself had considerable success with comparative ads in the '80s, and Pepsi's taste-test ads are the stuff of marketing legend.
"In both of those cases, it literally shifted the paradigm of competition," said Brand Keys President Robert Passikoff. "The Pepsi taste test forced Coke to not only come out with New Coke but change their formula because they couldn't stand being beaten in the marketplace."
But not everything can be a Pepsi Challenge, said author and blogger Seth Godin. "What they did was say that people who drink Coke are stupid, and that's a bold thing to do to build an entire brand on, but they were relentless about it," he said. "They didn't run the taste challenge for week or a month. They just kept running it over and over again."
But Mr. Godin doesn't think Dunkin' Beat Starbucks is the next Pepsi Challenge -- or even the next Mac vs. PC. "I don't think they have the money or the resolve to do what Pepsi did. I think it's going to be a small campaign on the margins, not a giant move that shows up in textbooks five years from now."
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story identified Campbell's agency as Y&R, New York. The agency shares Campbells' soup business with BBDO, which created the Campbell's Select Harvest campaign described in the story.