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Comparative advertising: the debate is back

The latest offensive from Rin – a TV commercial claiming to be better than Tide by not just naming but showing the competitive product, has brought the debate on comparative advertising back in focus. In my view, comparative advertising is permissible if it’s based on facts. Advertising Standards Council of India, has this to say about comparative advertising in it’s Code of Conduct (link to pdf):

In the Rin ad, the claim is limited to a whiter wash- ‘Tide se kahin behatar safedi de Rin’ (Rin gives better whiteness than Tide), without getting into specific, feature-to-feature comparison. Almost all detergent ads promise a whiter wash – except that they used to refer to ‘ordinary detergents’ leaving the consumer to figure that they are talking about her brand. The only difference here is that a competitor has been named, and shown brazenly. According to this article: ‘this claim is based on laboratory tests done through globally accepted protocols in independent third-party laboratories’.

Comparative ads aren’t new to India. Many years ago, Trikaya Grey created an ad for HCL Photocopiers which directly named Modi Xerox in their ads. The comparison was feature-to-feature and specifically mentioned why HCL was better. I don’t have the ads, but you can read about it in this 1989 article from Economic Times (link to pdf file).There have been others too – the recent Horlicks vs. Complan ads come to mind.

Without solid factual backup, comparative ads only serve to create a ruckus and bring the advertising and the brand(s) into the public eye. It remains to be seen how Tide will react but reports indicate that they may not respond directly. The ads remain on air with a high frequency for a short period of time, creating a lot of buzz before ASCI or a consumer complaint forces the advertiser to pull the ad off the air. Sometimes it may backfire on the advertiser – like in the case of Fusion water tanks. They released an ad (around the same time as the HCL ads) which said: ‘Bad news for Sintex’. It was based on a claim that Fusion had 6 new features over Sintex – the generic name for water tanks. I am not sure if it benefited Fusion; the HCL ads on the other hands helped increase shares dramatically. It’s a double edged sword since it reminds the consumer about your competing brand – just as the Surf Lalitaji ads reminded consumers of Nirma. It may also repulse a few consumers who don’t like brand bashing preferring for you to speak about your positives rather than the negatives of the competition.

Globally, comparative ads have been around for decades. There’s this classic ad for Penn Tennis Balls from Fallon McElligot which was endearing simply because the comparison was tongue in cheek. And then of course, the ‘Get a Mac’ ads for Apple which take a dig at some of PC’s features and also highlight the positives of Mac OS X. In this light, check out the latest effort from Audi of America. On the back of Car and Driver comparison tests, Audi took on it’s competitors – Lexus, BMW, Mercedes et al.

On the back of another fact – Audi is growing faster than Mercedes, Lexus or BMW – they released another ad, ‘The Spell‘, which again named competing brands directly. The Rin ad, compared to such efforts remains at a claim level. What say?


Ex-ad man. Love advertising, Apple, tech, digital, design and all things creative. VP - MarCom, @Robosoft. Views personal. See disclaimer for more.