On April 18, the Delhi High Court dismissed an application by consumer goods maker Marico to stop Adani Wilmar from advertising its Fortune rice bran cooking oil as healthier and cheaper than Marico's edible oils. Two months earlier, Hindustan Unilever (HUL) had dragged Reckitt Benckiser to the Calcutta High Court.
The dispute was about a Reckitt ad which claimed its Dettol dishwashing liquid was 100 times better than HUL's Vim. While the court asked Reckitt to modify the ad, HUL later came out with its own ad that exhorts consumers to use the power of 100 lemons instead of an antiseptic to clean utensils.
Competitive, or combative, advertising where a company directly compares its product with a rival's and claims superiority, is nothing new in India. Beverage giants PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have been taking potshots at each other for many years now. What is new, however, is the rise in the number of companies engaging in such advertisements and the growing intensity with which the rivals are striking back
The trend is most visible in the consumer goods sector, as companies fight to capture market share in an economy growing at its slowest pace in a decade. Companies resort to combative ads usually in segments where people tend to rely on habit for purchases, such as dishwashing liquids or toothpaste. Angshu Mallick, Chief Operating Officer, Adani Wilmar, defends its ad campaign.
"When we compared our brand with Saffola Gold and Sundrop Heart we were just placing the facts before readers," he says. Another ad that raised eyebrows recently came from PepsiCo. The campaign for Pepsi's Atom cola lampoons the stance of daredevilry that is a highlight of Coca-Cola's bestselling Thums Up brand. A PepsiCo India spokesperson says the ad projects a "more relevant and relatable definition of masculinity, as opposed to the much-hyped mindless action" usually shown in advertising.
So far, only a handful of disputes have reached the courts. But the number of complaints with the Advertising Standards Council of India surged seven times to 784 in the year ended March 2013 compared with the year before, says Secretary General Alan Collaco. The ASCI is a self-regulatory organisation for the advertising industry.
Will such ad campaigns continue? Yes, say marketing gurus. "Typically, market shares tend to go up temporarily for brands (because of competitive ads)," says brand strategy and marketing consultant Harish Bijoor. "They get a lot of attention."