There are two ways to define comparative advertising. One is “competitive brand advertising that makes an explicit comparison with one or more competing brands.” This is the more popular view of comparative advertising with many well-known examples: Bayer and Tylenol, Pepsi and Coke, Duracell and Energizer.
It is admissible when similar items are compared, such as cars in the same price band. It must not contain derogatory ‘knocking copy’.
But what about advertisements such as Avis’ admission of being number two, which makes them try harder; or the box of competing laundry detergent with concentric orange circles, partially hidden behind a pile of clothes; or Wendy’s question about the beef in competing fast food hamburgers?
In these and similar ads, there is no explicit mention of Hertz, Tide, or McDonald’s, but the message is intended to be comparative. So a second, more accurate definition of comparative advertising is “advertising in which an explicit brand comparison is recognized by the audience.”
Based on this second definition, the competing brand need not be actually named – the only requirement is that consumers think the comparison is taking place and that a specific brand is the target of the comparison.
Most comparative advertisements, especially for consumer services and packaged goods, make superiority claims for the sponsoring brand over the competing brand, e.g. Burger King’s flame-broiling beats McDonald’s frying.
Other comparative advertising has claimed comparability. In one classic case, the Opel claimed inferiority to the Volkswagen Rabbit – presumably, to build credibility for other claims.
Contrary to popular notion, comparative advertising in the U.S. was never illegal, so long as the claims were truthful. There are examples of comparative ads from colonial days, but the proliferation of comparative ads did not begin until 1972, when the FTC openly encouraged comparative advertising as a means of providing more information to consumers. Before this, advertisers had engaged in the comparisons commonly known as “Brand X” advertising. Rather than making explicit comparisons, the sponsoring brand would be compared to “Brand X,” “another leading detergent,” the “high-priced spread,” etc. This reflected a kind of gentlemen’s agreement in the advertising industry not to engage in “name-calling.”
Some advertisers felt that the FTC’s position would usher in a new era of vicious, destructive advertising. They predicted that consumers would be confused and unable to identify which was the sponsoring brand and which was the target brand, and that advertising would lose whatever credibility it had as claims and counter-claims went back and forth.
None of these consequences has come about, and there are still some questions about the effect of comparative advertising.
A number of research studies focused on the effectiveness of comparative advertising. In general, the results have been mixed, and almost every study had some methodological shortcoming. What follows is a summary of most of this research, broken down by some commonly used measures of advertising effectiveness:
- Brand Recall: mixed results, with some studies showing comparative advertising as more effective than noncomparative, and others showing no difference.
- Content Recall: balance of the evidence is in favor of comparative advertising over noncomparative or Brand X advertising. However, these studies were done when comparative advertising was just gaining popularity, so some of the results may be colored by the newness of the technique to consumers.
- Liking for the Ads: there is some evidence that consumers like comparative advertisements more than Brand X ads, but not any more than they like noncomparative ads. Again, this could be the effect of the novelty of the technique when the research studies were conducted.
- Attitude Change: there is little evidence that comparative ads improve consumers’ attitudes toward the sponsoring brand, nor that they hurt attitudes toward the target brand. Attitude change, however, is difficult to measure in most advertising research studies, such as the ones reported here, that rely on one or two exposures to the advertisement. Attitude change is often a long term process, requiring repeated exposure to the advertising message.
- Credibility: the balance of evidence is that comparative ads are less credible than noncomparative ads. In many instances, however, it is not important to have highly credible ads. For some packaged goods, it often matters less that consumers find the ads believable, but that they instill enough curiosity about the brand to get consumers to try it.
Despite the lack of evidence showing clearly the effects of comparative advertising, there are some general guidelines about when comparative advertising should and should not be used in a strategic marketing sense.
- First, comparative advertising is more useful for firms that are new or that wish to position themselves against well-known – and usually larger – competitors. Comparative advertising is a questionable tactic for firms that dominate their markets. Thus, it may be appropriate for Burger King to compare themselves with McDonald’s, but it would probably be a mistake for McDonald’s to retaliate with its own comparisons.
- Second, there are some brands that, while not dominant in their markets, have certain well known and desirable positions. KitchenAid dishwashers and Mercedes Benz are thought to be top-of-the-line, but are far from major market share brands. While both brands have found themselves the targets of comparative advertising, both should hesitate to respond in kind.
- Third, it is more useful if the sponsoring brand has a distinct, enduring advantage over the “target” brand. One pain drug claimed comparative effectiveness with the most popular brand, but said its price was lower. This made the most popular brand respond by cutting prices below the challanger brand in selected markets, and then claimed challanger’s ads were untruthful in all instances.
- Fourth, there are some markets in which segments of consumers consider comparative advertising to be “bad form.” One of these is financial institutions, and another seems to be public utilities (e.g., gas versus electric). There are peculiarities about these markets that make strong comparative advertising inadvisable. In one instance, a group of consumers reacted to a test of a comparative TV ad by saying it looked like an act of desperation by the sponsoring utility company.
- Fifth, comparative advertising should probably not be used if claim credibility is of major importance.
A key test, of course, of the effectiveness of comparative advertising is whether comparative advertising has resulted in improved sales of brands. This information is hard to come by, since many advertisers have no way of telling, or are reluctant to release the results. Even if they know, there is often the tendency to color the reports, depending on whether one was an advocate of the campaign or not.
While comparative advertising has not spelled doom for the advertising industry, neither has it been a sure-fire cure for the marketing ills of companies that have used it. Since there are some risks, as well as gains, associated with comparative advertising, companies that are considering it should engage in thorough testing before making major commitments to comparative campaigns.
Applications to Small Business
The disadvantages of comparative advertising listed above apply particularly to small businesses which are attempting to capture a local market. As long as the small business is competing against national giants, consumers will be sympathetic to the “little guy,” but when the little guys begin competing against each other with comparative advertising, consumers may perceive it as in bad taste.
Healthy competition is something most consumers enjoy, but it must always be done fairly, and without belittling the opponent. It is frequently a good idea to give the competition credit for some good feature which does not affect the benefit being offered.
For example, a clothing store advertising lower prices might say: “Bob’s might offer you a free football calendar, but you’ll never pay lower prices on name brand fashions than at Harry’s.”
Another approach to undercut the potential distastefulness of comparative advertising is to include good-natured humor, or unqualified “experts” whose opinions are valued for the wrong reasons. A designer picture frames online shop, for example, comparing its framing services to a competitor might use a child to exclaim how terrific the pictures are, based on the content of the pictures (himself or an animal) rather than on the quality of the framing.
While most small businesses do not have large advertising budgets, and when they do advertise they tend to promote a single feature or product in order to capture a target market, there can be select advantages to comparative advertising even for the smallest business.
- First, is name recognition. Comparative advertising tends to be more memorable. If an unknown company compares itself to an established company, consumers might remember the two together, whereas, they might forget the name of the new company.
- Second, comparative advertising can generate more business for both companies by increasing product awareness and telling consumers two places they can find an item.
- Third, the company not involved in comparative advertising can frequently turn a negative to a positive. “You might pay a little more at Bob’s, but you’ll never have a problem returning the pink tie with alligators your mother-in-law gave you for St. Patrick’s Day.”
In summary, small businesses considering comparative advertising should know their market well, establish goals for what they hope to achieve by comparing themselves to other companies, and thoroughly test the advertising before going public with it.
When producing the ad, the small businessperson should probably rely on an objective ad agency for advice about creating the ad campaign, but he should never relinquish control of the boundaries of acceptability which he believes his audience will accept.
Synonyms: comparison advertising