An ad war is brewing in telecom. Last year Verizon released a TV spot called “A better network as explained by colorful balls” purporting to show their wireless network’s ability to transmit data more efficiently than the three other major carriers: Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T.

Not content to be characterized by the competition, T-Mobile fired back with a response ad titled “The rest of the story,” accusing “Verizon of omitting information, claiming they have added coverage for 100 million people in the last two years.” Sprint followed suit with a spot called “Sprint Presents: Nice Try Verizon,” making similar allegations and claiming the fastest download speeds.

Recently Sprint made an even bolder move, hiring Verizon’s former pitchman, Paul Marcarelli, better known as “Test Man” or the “Can you hear me now?” guy. In their new ad, Marcarelli, wearing a shirt in Sprint yellow, explains that he switched carriers because Sprint now offers similar coverage to Verizon for less money.

Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson played down the move and managed to get in a quick counterpunch: “Sprint is using our 2002 pitchman because their network is finally catching up to our 2002 network quality.”

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Going Negative

Most brands would prefer that their competition not be named by anyone, let alone in their own ads or sponsored content. When a guest comes onto an NBC talk show to plug a program that airs on ABC or CBS, most hosts will close out the segment by saying something like, “Be sure to check out my guest’s new show, which airs Tuesdays at 7 on another network.”

Marketing a product or service doesn’t usually require mentioning the competition. Promoting its virtues and value is often enough by itself to spread awareness and encourage buying decisions, and it doesn’t risk confusing potential customers, or worse yet, sparking their interest in rival brands.

But there are times when it pays to call out the competition and maybe point out a few of its flaws and failings in the process. Politicians are no stranger to this practice, having long engaged in “attack ads” or “mudslinging” to disparage their opponents. It can be very effective in politics, but in consumer marketing things are a bit less cut and dry.

Prior to the 1970s, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) discouraged comparative advertising, fearing it would lead to consumers misidentifying products. Marketers, for their part, considered it unwise anyway, believing it might result in legal repercussions or even win public sympathy for the competitor they were maligning. One way around those pitfalls was to use a placeholder name like “Brand X.”

However, in 1972, the FTC changed tack, encouraging marketers to go ahead and name and shame their adversaries, hoping to promote more informative advertising and comparative shopping, and to stimulate competition in the marketplace. The federal agency does, however, hold such claims to a high degree of scrutiny, requiring them to be “truthful, accurate, and narrowly drawn.”

Since then we have seen a number of historic showdowns by major brands, including the Cola Wars between Coke and Pepsi, and Wendy’s famous “Where’s the Beef” attack on McDonald’s bun-heavy Big Mac. That particular ad became a cultural touchstone and an example of mudslinging and “knocking copy” when former vice president Walter Mondale used it to describe the political ideas of his rival, Senator Gary Hart, as unsubstantial in the 1984 presidential election.

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Big Risks, Big Rewards

Negative ads carry a great deal of risk, but when executed well they can be devastatingly effective. Not only can they negate a perceived advantage of the competition, but they are also more readily remembered. There is an innate power to negative stimuli. In nature, missing a positive indicator like a ripe apple means you go hungry for a day; missing a negative sign like a snake’s rattle could be far more dire.

These instincts are deeply ingrained in us and still affect how we process stimuli to this day: “We typically store bad information or experiences more quickly and longer in our memory banks than those that are good.”

Established brands, particularly those with younger consumers, can benefit from occasionally going negative. The Journal of Advertising Research published a 2015 study on the effectiveness of comparative advertising for prominent service brands. The study found that “Services advertisers who use strictly comparative advertising are justified in doing so if their target audiences are mainly younger consumers and if claims of believability are not crucial for advertising effectiveness.”

One way to avoid coming off as a bully or overly hostile is to always put the customer’s interests at the forefront. Brands that spend all their energy tearing down the competition or engaging in mean-spirited back-and-forth disputes lose sight of their target market’s stake. Consumers need to know that you are pointing out another product’s flaws not to be cruel, but to save them from making a bad decision.

Portraying yourself as David taking on Goliath also helps. Today, Apple is a tech behemoth that rarely needs to mention anything other than its latest gadgets and features, but between 2006 and 2009 it ran an award-winning campaign called “Get a Mac” starring Justin Long as the personification of a cool, easy-to-use, and modern Macintosh computer, and a nerdy John Hodgman as an old, beige, and somewhat finicky PC.

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Another important tool is humor. If you can take potshots at your competition and make your audience laugh at the same time, you avoid appearing ruthless. When Taco Bell wanted to break into the fast food breakfast market, it went directly at the reigning champ with a lighthearted ad featuring men who share the same name as McDonald’s mascot saying they prefer Taco Bell’s offering.

Comparative advertising is a powerful weapon in the marketer’s arsenal. But it shouldn’t be overused and should only be employed if necessary to carve out some market share from a dominant player. Don’t engage in an advertising war lightly, but if you do, be smart and strategic, and make sure when the dust settles your brand wins!