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If I were an advertiser, I'd never ask consumers to do something that they might not want to do.

For instance, Ford Motor Co. is taking a big chance when it asks prospective car buyers to "Imagine yourself in a Mercury." Why would anybody want to do that, especially with the really wacky commercials (which, I take it, are supposed to be silly and irreverent) they're running lately?

And McDonald Corp.'s is setting itself up for disappointment with its tagline, "Did somebody say McDonald's?" I personally don't recall having heard anybody ask that precise question, and it's easy for consumers to say no and go on about their business.

But the most egregious ad I've ever witnessed that sets itself up for failure is the newspaper ad for Procter & Gamble Co.'s Crest MultiCare toothpaste.

At first glance, I thought P&G's use of newspapers to announce its new (and I supposed) breakthrough toothpaste was pretty smart marketing. The use of newspapers immediately gave the new product credibility and importance that it wouldn't have gotten from TV alone. Furthermore, the unexpected sight of a Crest ad in the newspapers would make me recognize the new Crest line extension immediately when I saw the TV commercial for MultiCare. "Oh, that's the brand I saw in the newspapers," I'd say (to no one in particular).

But on closer examination, the ad contains a fatal flaw: It is too honest for its own good, and it is destined to help its competitor much more than itself. The newspaper ad is headlined, "Is Crest MultiCare a better choice for you?" And it carries a checklist of benefits derived from MultiCare and its archrival, Colgate Total. Both toothpastes help fight cavities, work between brushings, help to fight bad breath, etc. But under the heading, "helps reduce and prevent gingivitis and reduce plaque," only the Total box is checked.

In other words, in its own ad Crest confirms it can't do what Total can do-prevent gingivitis. P&G is substantiating Colgate Total's major claim in a dramatic way that even Colgate hasn't been able to achieve.

Why would P&G possibly want to be so forthcoming? Right now the company doesn't market a toothpaste with the same active ingredient that Total uses to combat the dreaded gum disease called gingivitis. But once it markets a gingivitis-fighter of its own, maybe Procter expects Colgate to reciprocate by saying Total is no better (or no worse) than the new Crest entry. That seems only fair.

In contrast to Crest's being kind to its competitor, a new ad by General Motors Corp.'s GMC Truck division beats up-unfairly-one of its own divisions. According to USA Today, GMC is touting itself as "professional grade" to bolster the false impression that GMC pickups are mechanically superior to Chevrolet. But both pickups are built in exactly the same way.

To justify the campaign, the general manager of GMC says, "A lot of people still think the products are different." And the GMC brand manager added: "When people ascribe a position to you, you'd be foolish not to go there."

So what we have here is an advertiser that foolishly admits it's not as good as its competitor and an advertiser that dishonestly claims it's better than an exactly comparable internal competitor.

I don't know whether to cry or laugh over today's schizophrenic state of advertising.

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