Industry wrestles with comparative ads

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"Advertising has changed from a gentlemanly process to one that is getting down and dirty in the trenches. There needs to be limitations," said Ronald Urbach, partner in the New York law firm of Davis & Gilbert.

Mr. Urbach was a speaker at a two-day conference in New York, co-sponsored by the National Advertising Review Council and the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, where participants wrestled with the rise in comparative ad-claim disputes. Last week's meeting was entitled "The Case for Comparison: How Comparative Advertising Can Meet the Test of Self-Regulation," and the consensus was that the best way to self-regulate comparative advertising is to use it sparingly and judiciously.

"I can't think of a single brand that was created and built on the basis of comparative advertising," said Richard Butt, managing partner and global creative director for WPP Group's Y&R Advertising, New York.

In light of recent events in the industry, comparative advertising has become a hot-button topic. Most notably, Procter & Gamble Co. Chairman-CEO A.G. Lafley called on his peers to utilize NAD instead of filing lawsuits to settle false-advertising disputes (AA, Oct.20). P&G has been hit with four such suits from competitors in the last year.

But it's not just P&G heading to court. Other cases involving MTD Corp.'s Yard-Man and John Deere & Co., as well as Virgin Atlantic and British Airways signify a growing trend, said Mr. Urbach.

Like Mr. Lafley did, Mr. Urbach and several of his colleagues advocated the NAD as the first place for disputes.

what ads mean

"The NAD has been fantastic in figuring out what ads mean in the absence of consumer-perception testing," said John Villafranco, a partner at Collier Shannon Scott, New York, and an expert in advertising litigation and unfair/deceptive practices.

"The self-regulation process is what we make it," said Carla Michelotti, exec VP-general counsel for Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett Worldwide, Chicago, and chair of the NARC. "We're like a family. We're responsible if the organization needs reviewing."

That's not to say comparative advertising should never be used. Even Mr. Butt, in saying he could not think of a single brand built on comparative advertising, nonetheless said that, in the end, all advertising could be viewed as comparative. In his presentation, he showed a series of commercials to back up his point, such as the famous Wendy's International "Where's the Beef?" spot in which the tagline was a clear inference to the marketer's competitors.

"What a brand gains from comparative advertising depends on your position in the marketplace," said David Lamb, director of worldwide planning, WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson, New York. "The best use of comparative advertising is to challenge an established brand leader. It's David vs. Goliath. Consumers like small, scrappy brands taking on the big guy."

Mr. Lamb said the strategy works perfectly when the small, upstart brand is able to form an instant frame of reference with consumers, or when it is able to lure the bigger brand into what he calls "a conversation the [market] leaders don't want."

"If you poke the tiger long enough," Mr. Lamb said, "you might draw him into unfamiliar territory."

Said Lee Garfinkel, chairman-chief creative officer of Omnicom Group's DDB, New York: "Comparative advertising can be a smart and powerful tool when executed correctly."

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