BRING BACK 'BRAND X'

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It took a long time, and a great amount of work with the Federal Trade Commission, to establish advertising that compares one product against another, by name, as an accepted part of the U.S. marketing landscape. There have been great, informative campaigns built on this tactic, yet look where it's taken us lately: a rampant trend in household products marketing toward not-very-informative, confusing ads that make a mockery of the potential benefit of comparisons.

"The Pepsi Challenge" is a casebook example of making direct comparison work. Others flopped. The Energizer "bunny," for example, never really scored with consumers until it was freed from its initial comparative ad war with Duracell's battery-powered toys -- now it keeps going and going.

Today, TV advertising for two disinfectant spray cleaners makes comparative claims specifying viruses and the length of time they were successfully eliminated by the product. Come on! What consumer is going to grasp that kind of detail. As reported in Advertising Age last week, the comparative marketing of spaghetti sauces eventually reached the point that two advertisers -- Campbell Soup Co. and Unilever -- acquiesced in a truce. As one executive put it, the combatants seemed to be "spending $60 million a year to convince consumers that our [product] is really crappy."

When there's "a meaningful point of difference in performance," another executive said, direct comparisons can be effective. But she also noted the very real risk "if you happen to be the underdog brand, of being the loser in people's minds." What consumer is going to remember which brand of paper plate caused the stain on the person's lap? It's the stain that makes the biggest impression; both brands lose.

Before named comparisons, in TV's earlier days, "blind comparisons" abounded, with "Brand X" standing in for the competition. That had its limitations, to be sure, but it didn't violate this old marketing adage: Never mention a rival brand in your own ads.

If there's a rule for marketers today, it isn't "never name a rival." It's be certain your product is the clear hero, no matter what ad technique is used. Avis, in its classic "tries harder" campaign, never muddied up its message with rival brand names. But consumers got the comparative pitch -- loud and clear.

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