Attack Season

Direct comparison/attack advertising isn’t new, but it seems to have taken center stage recently.

This isn’t a great surprise given the recession.  In tough economic times, let alone a deep recession, the focus can shift to hard fighting for market share points, even fractions of points, rather than growing market or category consumption; and innovation emphasis/investment may be curtailed as well.  Those who have experienced it firsthand know that market share battles can get nasty.

There are many different points-of-view on how to handle direct comparison/attack advertising, and maybe some of it depends on what company one was trained in and under what leaders one worked.  One school of thought says don’t mention the other brand in the advertising.  Another says the market leader shouldn’t engage in this tactic.  A third school of thought says this type of advertising can alienate consumers because they just see companies fighting, don’t know who is telling the truth, and really just want to know the positives about the product they buy.  At the same time, there is a role for hard-hitting advertising that helps sell products or services.  What’s the adventurous marketer to do?

For your viewing and contemplation pleasure today, here are three advertising examples that I’ve followed in the past few weeks.  One seems to be a running legal battle, one a court just ruled on, and in the third example the industry advertising watchdog just pronounced its decision.

The Hot Dog Battle

Since it’s summer, we’ll start with the great American hot dog.  According to recent sales data from IRI (Information Resources Inc.), Ball Park (Sara Lee) was the leader with about a three-point share advantage versus Oscar Mayer (Kraft).

Both companies have been busy in 2009.  In fact, Sara Lee sued Kraft in late May over hot dog taste test claims, explaining in its press release that “the suit claims Oscar Mayer is presenting a taste superiority claim against the entire line of Ball Park branded hot dogs that is both false and misleading to consumers.”  Ball Park Brand Director Chuck Hemmingway added:  ” Simply put, we believe that these untrue statements are all a bunch of bologna.”

Fast forward to this Kraft ad in the August issue of Relish, a Sunday newspaper magazine insert:

Hot Dog Ad

The Challenger Keeps Pressuring the Leader

The next advertsing example is Powerade (Coca-Cola) and Gatorade (PepsiCo).  Powerade recently launched a new version called Powerade ION4, containing four electrolytes, including calcium and magnesium.  Gatorade, which invented the sports drink category, has two electrolytes, but not calcium and magnesium.  Naturally, Powerade said it now had the superior drink, touting that it was “the complete sports drink.”

PepsiCo sued Coke in April.  Last week, in a court decision, Coke and Powerade prevailed.

Here’s one of the Powerade launch communications, which began in March:


My Soup Is Better Than Yours

Finally, Progresso (General Mills) and Campbell Soup have been battling since late last year, in part about new consumer trends in favor of fewer and easier to understand ingredients.  Harking back to when Chinese food and MSG were the negative craze, the salty ingredient was once again in the spotlight.  The top ad promotes Campbell’s Select Harvest line, while the bottom ad aims to boost Progresso.

Campbell Vs Progresso


This soup battle may have been decided by the industry’s advertising watchdog, the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Better Business Bureau, which stated in an August 4th press release that General Mills should “discontinue comparative advertising that communicated inaccurate messages regarding Campbell soups and MSG content.”  Companies are not legally required to adhere to NAD decisions, though the trend is for compliance.  General Mills replied that “it will take NAD’s recommendations into account in future advertising.”


Hard-hitting advertising/marketing communications is one thing, and after all, the goal is for your company to win.  However, direct comparison/attack advertising is a whole other ball game, and must be approached somewhat differently than your regular advertising.  Such an effort must become an even greater collaboration between the marketing team, its agencies, legal, market research, and R&D in a thoughtful analysis that considers all potential scenarios.  Depending on the claims, manufacturing may need to participate as well.  And don’t forget that input from sales on potential customer ramifications can be helpful.  At the very least, make sure sales is properly prepared to answer customer questions about the ads so they’re not blindsided.  Depending on the brand/product line and how far you’re going, top management may need to be in the decision-making loop, or at least apprised of what’s going on.  The best guidance I can share, though, is to rely on solid marketing thinking and discipline if such an option arises.  What is the brand or product positioning?  What are the key benefits for the customer versus competition?  What are you trying to communicate and why will it give you a differentiating advantage?  Can you support the claim?  Can you stomach the publicity and potential legal action?  To borrow an old cliche, “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”

Harvey Chimoff is a hands-on marketing leader and business-wide collaborator who builds marketing capabilities in B2B/B2C organizations that drive customer success.