In recent months, direct-comparisons are surging in such categories as food storage bags, paper towels, paper plates and disinfectant sprays as rivals slug it out.
Clorox Co., via DDB Worldwide, San Francisco, has taken the offensive against Reckitt & Colman's Lysol spray in ads this fall claiming its Clorox disinfectant keeps surfaces free of some bacteria for up to 24 hours while Lysol doesn't. Lysol fights back in print ads from McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, claiming Clorox doesn't last 24 hours against some viruses.
STORAGE BAGS BATTLE
That finger-pointing follows a qualifying round this summer, when Clorox's Glad and Tenneco Packaging's Hefty brand jousted with superiority claims over category-leading S.C. Johnson & Son's Ziploc and Slide-Loc bags. That advertising pitted two offices of the same agency in the battle, DDB in San Francisco for Clorox and DDB's New York office for Hefty.
Hefty, meanwhile, was the subject of attack -- along with Chinet plates -- in a comparative effort earlier this year from Fort James Corp.'s Dixie, which also took on Procter & Gamble Co.'s Bounty in the memorable "Grannies" spot for Brawny paper towels.
Clorox also has poured it on with comparative ads against private-label brands of bleach and cleaners in defense of its flagship bleach and category-leading Pine-Sol brands.
Direct-comparison ads are nothing new, of course. The Federal Trade Commission first permitted them in the mid 1970s and they've become a staple in such categories as batteries and antacids.
The rise in direct-comparison ads has meant 80% of complaints to the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus now come from marketers, compared to a majority coming from consumers in the 1970s, according to a spokesman.
For years, much of the package-goods world followed the lead of P&G, which never used direct comparisons because it didn't want to give generally lesser-funded rival brands the exposure, said Jack Gordon, president of AcuPOLL Research and a former P&G brand manager.
But marketers are turning more to direct comparisons now because they work in crowded categories with me-too products.
"Generally, we have found that in categories where there are, quite frankly, a lot of similar products, if we have a meaningful point of difference in performance, communicating that is very persuasive to consumers across a lot of our household categories, and that's been validated by our ARS [consumer market research] testing," said Beth Springer, marketing director for Glad products at Clorox.
A 1997 study by researcher RSC found that direct-comparison ads for established products scored higher in consumer tests by ARS than ads without any comparisons and slightly higher than ads using indirect comparisons. In new-product ads, indirect-comparison ads scored best of the three approaches.
Still, direct-comparison ads have been relatively rare. In the ARS database on which the study was based, only 12% of ads had direct comparisons and 16% used indirect comparisons.
One risk is that consumers will be amused by the ad but forget who won the test, Ms. Springer said.
"You don't want people to be confused, so you need a lot more brand identification than you would normally have. You run the risk -- particularly if you happen to be the underdog brand -- of being the loser in people's minds."
In batteries, long a battleground between Gillette Co.'s Duracell and Energizer's products, direct-comparison ads have mainly served to confuse consumers, said Steve Shanesy, senior VP-marketing of Rayovac Corp., marketer of the No. 3 battery, Ray-O-Vac.
"I think it's caused consumer confusion, because there are multiple ways to make claims in the battery category, as I suppose in many categories," Mr. Shanesy said. "People hear what are accurate claims [from different types of tests] but contradictory from one competitor to another. . . . And because of that, I don't think consumers know what to believe and tend to be more skeptical about the claims."
That's why the value brand has instead turned to challenge ads from Y&R Advertising, Chicago, in which spokesman Michael Jordan mocks the constant "trash talk" and offers consumers money back on Ray-O-Vac batteries if they notice a performance difference compared with other brands.
"We have found that strategy of staying out of the fray to be very effective," he said, noting that Rayovac has gained market share on both rivals in the past year.
In some cases, marketers have chosen disarmament after years of ad warfare proved fruitless -- such as Unilever's Ragu and Campbell Soup Co.'s Prego, each claiming the other had runnier sauce.
"At a certain point [Unilever] realized, hey, the category has declined every year for several years," said one marketing services company executive, "and between [Unilever and Campbell], we're spending $60 million a year to convince