Naming your rival in an advertising commercial at one point was unthinkable. At best, there was subtlety where it would something similar would be shown. It was a little mischievous but intended to create a controversy. The smarter brands stole the thunder from right under the nose and there is perhaps a no better example than Pepsi's "Nothing Official About It" line during the 1996 cricket match when archrival Coca-Cola cut a large cheque to be the tournament's official sponsors. Instances of the war between Pepsodent and Colgate did nothing more than saying "the largest selling brand."
Clearly, all that is a thing of the past as the comparative advertising battle now has taken pretty serious proportions. FMCG biggies Dabur and Marico have locked horns over hair oil and honey, two categories that have a large consumer base. Just a few days ago, Dabur put out an advertisement saying its Jasmine oil "gives soft and shiny hair and 66% more oil than Parachute Jasmine."
The two companies have been at it not just with oil but in the honey business too. More recently, HUL's Domex took it to Harpic, a Reckitt Benckiser brand and the market leader, in a hard-hitting television and digital campaign. Shot in a supermarket, a lady is shown purchasing Harpic when her young son expresses dissent before the Domex brand is shown as being better. Clearly, the gloves are off and being discreet is not the name of the game.
For starters, the battle is always unleashed by the challenger. The basis for comparative advertising is to use it as a tactic, or intentionally short-term, and hopefully gain some traction in the consumer's mind. "Brands want to start conversations with the consumers," says Prateek Srivastava, Co-Founder, ChapterFive Brand Solutions. To his mind, the rules of the game have changed and for an obvious reason. "Digital as a medium allows it to become a free-for-all." The controversy between Sebamed and HUL on the pH issue earlier in the year is still quite fresh.
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The extent to which comparative advertising is effective depends on how convincing the message is. Sukesh Nayak, Chief Creative Officer, Ogilvy insists there necessarily needs to be something interesting to be said. "Consumers are smart and will not care if there is nothing unique. Often, it does not work simply because of the lack of ingenuity," he says. In times such as this, disruption is what works best and "one has to be not just faster but better as well."
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The most important component of this is what is permissible and that is where the role of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) comes in. Its Secretary-General Manisha Kapoor says the code allows those advertisements where the competitor is named to go ahead subject to certain conditions being fulfilled. "It will need to be clear what aspects of the advertiser's products are compared with that of the competitor. Besides, the subject matter of comparison is not chosen in such a way to confer an artificial advantage upon the advertiser to suggest a better bargain is offered than is truly the case," she explains. Other areas are the comparisons being factual and accurate, no likelihood of the consumer being misled and the advertisement not unfairly denigrating other products directly.
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The marketplace of today is close to being brutal and brands have pushed the envelope. Kapoor says there is no change in the rule book but what is going on probably points to an intensifying of competition as well as a shift in the nature of advertising. "This is possibly a stage of advertising evolution where brands wish to communicate benefits in more direct and overt ways." At what point will being direct or overt stop is out there for judgement. Nothing seems to be in the way of comparative advertising anytime soon.
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