There’s a broad misconception that comparative advertising is banned in South Africa, with proponents claiming this to be bad for consumers. This has come about largely as a result of ignorance, but it’s also perpetuated by certain industry commentators such is Chris Moerdyk who recently bemoaned the lack of comparative advertising as “an absolute tragedy”. Moerdyk is a bit of an industry basher.
Just this week he had these choice words about the advertising business: “ because over the past 40 years I have yet to see the ad industry get off its self-absorbed arse for anything”. I have no beef with the self-absorbed bit as it would be plainly untrue to deny aspects of this in our industry, but I do have a problem with the truth in the statement, or lack thereof. Perhaps it’s because Moerdyk hasn’t actually worked in the advertising field for over two decades and is out of touch, but I find this kind of comment derisory and unconstructive. It’s most certainly unfounded, as are his claims about comparative advertising.
Moerdyk suggests that greater freedom to compare directly would lead to greater consumer clarity, increased competition, greater levels of advertising spend and lower prices. Were that the case then every agency in town would be toting aggressive comparative advertising, yet they don’t. Maybe it’s because we’re too self-absorbed to get off our collective arses to increase our revenue, or maybe it’s because the entire industry is onto something that’s escaped Moerdyk.
The well-known correlations between increased advertising spend and price wars are a direct result of price wars, not the other way around. There exists an extensive body of research from the King of comparative advertising, the Granddaddy of the industry, Madison Avenue, on the merits and demerits of comparative advertising. Unsurprisingly, the research demonstrates that advertising wars most often occurred in product and service markets characterised by intense competition. There is consistent and overwhelming evidence that comparative advertising has the inverse effect to that for which it was originally encouraged by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In the 1970s, the FTC began encouraging advertisers to make comparisons with named competitors, with the broad, public welfare objective of creating more informative advertising. What followed was a bloody mess.
Let’s pause for a paragraph and define comparative advertising. The FTC’s definition is “advertisement[s] that compares alternative brands on objectively measurable attributes or price, and identifies the alternative brand by name, illustration or other distinctive information.” South African Trade Mark law prohibits the use of another party’s brand name or identity, which is where the narrow interpretation of comparative arises. The ASA Code of Practice applies further limitations encompassing substantiation, misleading or confusing advertising, infringement of advertising goodwill and disparagement. Ergo comparative advertising is quite permissible, provided an advertiser remains within the bounds of these principles.
Now let’s apply an example, one commented on by Moerdyk in specialist ICT publication TechCentral recently in which network operator Cell C’s Jose Dos Santos, bemoaned his company’s frustration at not being able to compare their products directly with rivals MTN and Vodacom. According to TechCentral, Dos Santos says consumers have a right to the information that Cell C wants to use in its advertising campaigns but can’t because of legislation. That’s quite a dramatic claim. Taken literally it could be construed as a limitation on the company’s freedom of commercial speech. It’s evidently a case of hyperbole, albeit an alarming one.
Now let’s assume that Cell C wanted to publish some factually correct, substantiated comparisons between its offering and those of its rivals – in a simple comparative table (after all, if it’s facts and truth we’re after, a comparative table is a pretty reliable start). There’s absolutely nothing within the ASA Code or South African law that prevents it from doing just that. A little bit of unimaginative creative license would allow them to stack up column A as Cell C, column B as the red competitor and column C as the yellow competitor. Not terribly exciting, but who’s going to be confused about which brands columns B and C refer to?
The real problem with comparative advertising, and one that Madison Avenue’s clients are still stubbornly learning after 100 years, is that it inevitably confuses the people it’s designed to influence, loses sight of the advertising intent, and ends up as a very expensive and invidious display of corporate ego. All of which erodes consumer confidence in the brands and the even the category, if it hasn’t bored them to death before then. Early comparative advertising wars erupted in the first few decades of the 20th century and included baking powder, tobacco, motor vehicles, tyre brands and even citrus growers (the Orange Growers of California and Florida got into a proper spat).
WWII ensured a quiet period before making a comeback with the famous Avis vs. Hertz wars, and began to show some nuance over the accusatory hysteria of the earlier eras. That didn’t last as the 70’s and 80’s saw a big uptick with the cola, analgesic and burger wars, while the following two decades became the turn of credit card companies, pizza brands, energy drinks and beer. At the end of each war, many executives admitted to the folly of their ways. A Coca-Cola executive told Advertising Age that he called a ceasefire because comparisons based on “highly subjective areas . . . can only work to the detriment of the industry”. Tobacco tycoon of Lucky Strike fame, George Washington Hill, said of the sweet manufacturers that bizarrely took the fight to tobacco brands, “When you start worrying about the other fellow’s business you cease to sell your own merchandise”.
Describing the war among the Big Three U.S. car manufacturers, Printers’ Ink summarized this belief: “After reading the contradictory facts and figures, many a prospective automobile buyer must have decided to follow Ed Wynn’s advice and buy a horse”. Another writer for The Printer’s Ink wrote: “But when one party says one thing and the other states what seems to be a directly conflicting fact, the likely conclusion of the consumer is that one of the two is a liar—probably both”. Kenneth Willson, president of the National Better Business Bureau, had this to say on the subject: “Exaggeration by one ‘knocking’ advertiser leads to further exaggeration by his competitors and eventually to outright misrepresentation. As exaggerated competitive claims or half-truths are hurled by scores of business rivals, none will have any effect at all on any but the small unthinking part of the public”.
A Microsoft executive captured the view of many when he said “I don’t think there’s ever been a study that shows that negative advertising sells products”. Marketing psychologist Ernest Dichter, aka the father of motivational research, warned that consumers usually respond negatively and with confusion to advertising wars when he said “The more confusing and vicious the mutual attacks become, the more the respondent comes to the conclusion that he had better rely on his own judgment and not on what he is being told in the ad.”
Some of these wars went beyond advertising, with Papa John’s and Pizza Hut taking each other to court over “dirty laundry” campaigns, which resulted in both chains embarrassingly revealing some unpleasant secrets about their sauce making process. The lowest point was probably the analgesic war between Advil and Tylenol, the outcome of which destroyed all credibility of their respective manufacturers and did extensive damage to the entire American drug industry.
It’s precisely these kinds of examples that likely lead the ASA to include the Code limitations referred to. The guiding principle of the Code with reference to comparative advertising is that products should be promoted on their own merits and not on the demerits of their competitors’. Far from being a nanny organ, these are sensible caveats applied sensibly by the vast majority of advertisers, to the actual benefit of consumers.
Then there’s the not so small matter of creativity. There’s an old advertising saying about the freedom of a tight brief which refers to the intensity of the focus being asked of the creative team. Excluding territory that cannot be explored is often as liberating to the creative process as what can be. When a brief is led by a client’s desire to get one over the competition, the result is invariably poor and devoid of consumer benefit.
Advertising is a discipline of grabbing and holding attention for long enough to convey a persuasive message. It’s difficult enough to sell an indistinctive product without having to throw a juvenile jab at a competitor. When the rare opportunity to sell on merit and simultaneously poke a competitor arises, agencies usually grab it with both hands. With real finesse it can be powerful stuff. But as for the rest, don’t treat the consumer like she’s stupid because she’s not.
Justin McCarthy is managing director the TBWA Group.