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In the auto industry, comparative advertising can backfire, according to findings of a new survey by consultancy CNW Marketing Research.

CNW surveyed nearly 1,200 new-car "intenders" by phone for reaction to three specific comparative TV commercials and three non-comparative spots.

"The numbers tend to favor non-comparative ads," said CNW VP Art Spinella.

Consumers were asked about four Nissan Motor Corp. USA commercials, one of which compares Nissan's Altima sedan to a Mercedes-Benz while another compares it to a BMW. Other ads in the survey were for General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet division, one of which compares the Suburban sport-utility vehicle to Ford Motor Co.'s Ford Expedition.

The prospects also were asked about Nissan's non-comparative spot for its Frontier pickup, showing a dog pushing its sleeping male owner in his reclining chair to a dealership, and a Chevy Blazer commercial that shows the SUV avoiding road obstacles.


Among the comparative ads, the Altima spot touts Altima's roominess over Mercedes -- and shows the small sedan crashing through a glass display window over a Mercedes, with the words "Mercedes has just been topped" -- brought the most negative reactions, Mr. Spinella said.

"People were offended with the comparison of Altima to Mercedes-Benz," Mr. Spinella said. Prospects of both sexes and all ages fairly frequently said comparing the two cars was like comparing apples to oranges, he noted.

"The ad did exactly the opposite of what it was intended to do," said the executive.

Prospects were asked four basic questions: if they learned anything about specific vehicles from the ads; if the comparisons were fair; if the ads would influence their purchase decision; and if they would add the vehicle to their shopping lists.

Based on results from the phone survey, 11.3% said they would add Altima to their shopping list after seeing the ad; 9.3% said the ad would influence their buying decision; 29.7% said they learned something about the car; and 17.1% said the Altima/Mercedes ad was a fair comparison, the lowest result for any comparative ad.

CNW conducted the same surveys with three focus groups in three states earlier in April, with a total of 290 new-car prospects, and the focus-group results were similar to the phone survey, conducted the weekend of April 25-26. TBWA Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., handled the Nissan ads and Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., is the Chevy agency.

"When you reach too far, I think you destroy your credibility," said John Slaven, founder of consultancy Slaven Marketing Services and a former auto-marketer ad director and agency executive.

He suggested that Nissan should probably compare Altima to a true competitor, like Toyota Motor Sales USA's Camry.

John Rinek, director of advertising at Nissan, said the carmaker extensively and continuously tests its ads and that the comparison ad for Altima does well with its target.

"We are getting the value message across. We have no delusions people are going to cross-shop Mercedes with Altima," said Mr. Rinek.

Chevy's Suburban-vs.-Expedition commercial scored highest in CNW comparison fairness, at 91.4%, and 71.2% of consumers said they learned something about the product from the spot.

More prospects, 79.6%, said they learned something about Chevy Blazer in its non-comparative spot. The non-comparison Frontier pickup spot scored lowest among all the ads researched; 5.7% of respondents said the ad would influence their purchase decision and 10.4% said they learned something about the product.


Nissan enjoyed a successful launch when introducing its new Altima in 1993, with the tag "Affordable luxury," in ads that also compared Altima to a Mercedes and a BMW. The new campaign, however, does not use the "Affordable luxury" line.

Those 1993 ads may have been effective then because of the tag and tone, Mr. Spinella suggested.

CNW didn't conduct the survey for a particular client. The findings are likely to appear in a CNW newsletter sent to subscribers, said Mr. Spinella.

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