Comparing brands against other brands can be risky in advertising. A survey by Research Systems Corp. asked consumers how they felt about ads in which specific attributes of a product were compared directly or indirectly with rival brands. Results were affected by whether the product in question was new or established. (graphic) NEW AMMO FOR COMPARATIVE ADS

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Coke vs. Pepsi, Ford vs. Chevy and MCI vs. AT&T.

Competitive comparison advertising has played a big role in many battles for market share, but the effectiveness of that tactic has been debated.

Now, a study by Research Systems Corp., Evansville, Ind., claims competitive comparison TV spots with a brand differentiating message improve the odds of achieving superior persuasion scores. Comparison advertising was found to be most effective when it involved indirect comparative claims made by new products.

Overall, ads containing direct and indirect comparisons with a brand differentiating message scored 21% higher than the norm for all ads on RSC's ARS Persuasion index. Ads that used brand differentiation but no comparisons scored 18% higher than the norm.

"Differentiating your brand from other brands in the category provides the highest likelihood of improving your advertising performance or sales effectiveness," said Mark Gleason, RSC exec VP. And "including a competitive product as a point of reference for consumers will help them understand the advantage one product has over another."

The study won't end the debate about comparative advertising. Millward Brown, a research company in Naperville, Ill., disagrees with the concept of persuasion scores as the sole means of measuring sales effectiveness.

"Persuasion scores only show short-term sales effects. Advertising's relevance, believability and ability to generate impressions are all linked to long-term sales," said Pat Sparreo, account group director at Millward Brown, which uses copy testing, introspective questions and other methods to predict sales effectiveness.

However, RSC followed for five years an advertiser that stayed with the same basic message of brand differentiation and using competitive advertising. In the five-year period, share significantly grew, Mr. Gleason said.

As an example of competitive comparison advertising with a brand differentiating main message, Mr. Gleason cited the new spots for Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s Excedrin, though they were not part of the test. Excedrin maintains it cures headaches better, an attribute that no other analgesic claims. Then, Excedrin clarifies its position by directly comparing itself to Tylenol. Bozell, New York, is Excedrin's agency.

RSC in January released results of a test of 5,000 competitive-comparison and non-competitive-comparison commercials on a general-population audience of about 2.5 million people. The commercials were culled from RSC's database. From the sample, RSC took the ARS Persuasion scores, which measure a spot's effectiveness in influencing the viewer's preference of one product over another, and broke them down by product type, brand differentiation and comparison.

A percentage score reflecting how well ads scored above the norm is given for each of the comparison categories-"direct," "indirect," and "none." "Direct" Col 3, Depth P11.01 I1.85 comparisons involved identifying a competitor by name, while "indirect" doesn't identify the competitor but uses language such "better than the leading brand."

The study was also divided between established products and new products. RSC separated the categories because new products do better than established brands in persuasion scores.

"With new products, there is new information, new news, more innovation and combining the data would be misleading," Mr. Gleason said.

New products fare very well in both indirect and non-comparative brand-differentiating advertising, 45% and 40% above the norm, respectively. But when new products use direct comparison advertising the rate of percentage of superiority is less, 28%.

"New brands that compare themselves to well-established brands add confusion to what is being advertised, so people tend to remember the established brands and not remember the new brands," Mr. Gleason said.

Even without using a brand differentiation message, new products still fared well in persuasion scores.

"A new product's odds of success are higher as far as getting initial interest and trying the product," Mr. Gleason said.

Established brands, unlike new products, lack a curious and fresh appeal. Yet, competitive comparison ads with a brand differentiating message still carry an overall superiority percentage of 16%.

Indirect comparison advertising with a brand differentiating message is least effective in this category, 13%. Indirect comparison advertising is slightly less persuasive than direct comparison or no comparison advertising, at 17% and 18%, respectively.

Leah Rickard coordinates Research News.

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