Book of Tens: Nasty Comparative Campaigns of 2009

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While some comparative campaigns are a goldmine of free publicity and brand buzz, others can be just plain confusing. Verizon went after Comcast in a $100 million campaign introducing Fios, its $23 billion fiber-optic network, as a superior product to cable, with better customer service, and faster download speeds. To drive the point home, Verizon used a series of spots depicting Comcast servicemen as lazy and clueless. Comcast fired back with ads portraying Fios servicemen as stalkers who push Fios packages on customers. Fios came back with and a related ad wherein Comcast Guy is asked, "Why don't you just tell the truth?" He responds, "You gotta get in people's heads and confuse them. That's Marketing 101." Verizon blamed slowing subscriptions on ineffective marketing.

Turns out the people most worked up about your cellphone service may be the ones peddling it. Verizon launched "There's a map for that" from agency McCann Erickson, New York, this fall, starting a multimillion-dollar ad war with AT&T over its phone service. Verizon's commercial offered maps of areas in the U.S. where it boasted full coverage, and a much spottier map of AT&T service. AT&T responded with a lawsuit, contending that Verizon gave the impression that AT&T has no service in areas where there is no 3G coverage. Then AT&T launched its own ads, from BBDO Worldwide, New York, starring Luke Wilson and touting its 3G network, popular devices, and ability to talk and search at the same time. The marketers called a legal truce earlier this month, but the ad war continues.

Another Verizon campaign took aim at the Apple/AT&T juggernaut, this time pitting the Droid against the iPhone. The campaign from McGarryBowen, New York, picks at iPhone's perceived shortcomings, such as lack of keyboard and the ability to run multiple third-party apps simultaneously. This was the iPhone's first comeuppance, but Droid's initial marketing wave resulted primarily in head-scratching. The male-centric messaging focused more on the device's chief competitor than the Droid's allegedly next-generation capabilities. Still, the work has been hard to miss. With a $100 million saturation campaign, Droid's messaging has blanketed TV, out-of-home, online and retail outlets with a pure play for the 20- to 30-year-old-male nerd herd. To date, Apple has yet to take the bait.

It's a different story on the laptop front, where Apple is still chasing Microsoft's commanding market share, with higher-priced products. After years of losing the battles of usability, virus protection and -- most importantly -- cool, Microsoft launched the laptop hunter campaign from Crispin Porter & Bogusky in April. In every spot, hip customers with specific needs are able to find a PC that satisfies their requirements and offers substantial savings over a Mac. One spot, starring a female law student who buys a Dell for $972, claimed that a similar Mac would have cost $2,000, without any add-ons. This resulted in a call from Apple's legal department, demanding changes to the ad because Mac prices had been reduced. Microsoft removed Apple pricing specifics from the commercial.

The underdog chain launched the first cannonball last fall, announcing that Dunkin' had beaten Starbucks in a nationwide taste test. The work, from agency Hill Holliday, Boston, featured a white-coated woman polling characters who represent the customers Dunkin' says are the hard-working, blue-collar Americans who are its most loyal customers. It's been an easy pot shot against Starbucks, known for a more bourgeois sort of clientele. Starbucks responded in its own way, via print and outdoor ads from agency BBDO, New York, warning customers to "Beware of cheaper coffee. It comes with a price." Starbucks has long touted better-quality beans, better-trained staff, and increasingly, more-stringent environmental standards. Dunkin' brought the spots back to TV in October.

Starbucks may have slowed down its same-stores sales losses, but ad-based attacks from competitors continue to rise. When jumping on the bandwagon, however, upscale Caribou Coffee got even more aggressive. The brand's first-ever TV ads from agency Colle & McVoy, Minneapolis, went directly for Starbucks' consumers. The first spot, launched last month, promotes mochas reformulated with "real chocolate," starring two trendily-attired plastic dolls who act blasé until a human-sized person sits down with a frothy Caribou beverage. The girl doll asks, "Why don't we ever get Caribou coffee?" The boy doll replies, "Because we're not real." Rather than duking it out, Starbucks has focused its holiday marketing efforts around raising money for AIDS relief in Africa, and continued support for Via, its instant-coffee product. Caribou may have further comparisons slated for January, when it will launch its own oatmeal.

Domino's took aim at surging Subway with another taste-test campaign, from agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky. The cheeky ads depict the two-to-one margin by which the chain claimed to have beaten Subway in a taste test. Domino's launched a handful of toasted subs late last year, and Subway's runaway success with the $5 footlong in 2008 made it the clear target for comparisons. But when the ads launched late last December, Subway wasn't laughing. The chain sent Domino's a cease-and-desist letter, which provided fodder for Domino's next ad, in which CEO David Brandon burned the note. The chain also issued a press release about the "food fight" and encouraged consumers to visit Domino's website, click an illegible an icon of the letter, and watch it burn.

A spring campaign from Kraft's Oscar Mayer asserted that the brand's namesake franks beat Sara Lee's Ball Park Beef Franks in a taste test. Sara Lee responded quickly with a lawsuit, saying the ad copy insinuated that Oscar Mayer had bested Ball Park's line. Ball Park, which was the leading grocery brand by sales according to IRI, asked for an injunction, corrective advertising, damages, disgorgement of profits and legal fees. The complaint alleged that Kraft's ads caused "irreparable injury to Sara Lee, including damage to Sara Lee's Ball Park hot dog sales, profits, business relationships, reputation and goodwill." Oscar Mayer stood by the ads, but the ads tapered off. The companies, which have litigated the case since May, have a settlement conference scheduled this week, according to court documents.

In launching lighter, healthier and pricier Campbell's Select Harvest, Campbell went after General Mills' Progresso, which enjoyed a sales bump from diet-related advertising and a Weight Watchers endorsement. In ads from agency BBDO, New York, blindfolded women noted a natural, farm-raised chicken taste in Campbell's product and MSG in Progresso's. General Mills fired back in a quick-hit print campaign, pointing out Campbell's red-and-white label soups contain MSG, too. Campbell's replied with a list of soups without MSG. The ad battle resulted in a free-media free-for-all, with coverage in the national dailies, Sunday talk shows, and even a spoof on the Colbert Report. Despite warnings from Wall Street, both brands said the tactics worked, citing sales gains, though price increases were a factor.

Buick, emboldened by a new look for its LaCrosse sedan, targeted Lexus in a spate of ads beginning this summer from agency Leo Burnett. LaCrosse's new, classed-up tagline, "The new class of world class," put Buick into position to attack the Lexus ES with a lower cost of entry. LaCrosse starts at $27,085, compared to a base price of $34,800 for the ES. Recent work has encouraged consumers to "EX your Lexus," and promised "Goodbye, road rage. Hello, road envy." The new LaCrosse, Buick suggests, is "another thing for Lexus to pursue." But the battle has been one-sided to date. Lexus has yet to respond publicly, and Bob Lutz, vice chairman of marketing who championed the tactic, was ousted earlier this month. It's unclear whether replacement Susan Docherty will stay this course.

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