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(Inputs from Samarpita Banerjee, Dipali Banka and Eularie Saldanha)

Ad wars have hottened up all around us. While ambush advertising has gone from covert references to a rival brand to overt, from subtle to full-blown spoofs with brands openly hitting out at a rival in the same space, many brands are taking their competitors to court on allegations of misleading claims or for coming up with disparaging communication.

Take for instance what happened in the last few weeks. Herbal beauty products brand Lotus took Hindustan Unilever (HUL) to court for the latter’s ad ‘meant for internal consumption’ leaked on WhatsApp that implies that a Lotus sunscreen is of inferior quality than one of HUL’s brands and that it leads to sunburn. Airconditioner manufacturer Voltas filed a court case against Chinese home appliances and consumer electronics company Haier as one of its recent ad campaigns spoofs the former, implying that its product is of inferior quality. Or telecom major Reliance Jio dragging rival Bharti Airtel to court on allegations that the latter’s IPL communication is misleading consumers.

Whether comparative advertising is effective for a brand – i.e., whether it helps in making any kind of impact in terms of sales is debatable. What it does manage to do is get people talking about the brands, and this leads to an increase in overall brand recall, especially in the era of social media where anything remotely catchy or controversial gets widely shared.

However, ethically is it right for a brand to make a deliberate overt attack on its competitor? Where should a brand draw the line while degrading its competition? What are the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) regulations to protect brands at the receiving end of these campaigns and how effective are these rules?

Ambush or comparative advertising is hardly a new marketing trick. The earliest court case concerning comparative advertising in the US, the Saxlehner v Wagner case dates back to 1910. Closer home, who can forget the good old days of the Cola wars or when Rin openly declared that its product gave more whiteness than Tide Naturals?

Studies on the marketing strategy of comparative advertising divide it into two parts – implicit advertising, where a brand is not named as such, but subtly referred to, and explicit where a product is directly compared to its competitor by openly stating its name. Indian advertising has seen a lot of both kinds of comparative advertising over the years. (See Potshots)

The primary objective of ambush advertising, most experts believe, is to create a contrast between their own offerings and the offerings of a rival brand. By establishing this contrast, brands try to influence the buying decisions of consumers.

An example of this is the Patanjali campaign for its honey brand in 2016. Patanjali’s TV advertisement claimed that its honey is safer and cheaper compared to other brands in the market, while displaying a bottle that resembled Dabur honey. The ad blatantly pointed out that the Patanjali product, priced at Rs 70, is of course a better deal than the Dabur price point of Rs 122 for the same product.

The ad sparked off a reaction from Dabur, which released a TVC indicating that its product is safe and certified by the government’s Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). The communication stopped short of actually naming Patanjali, but Dabur had made its point.

So what is it that brands achieve by hitting out at each other in their communication? Says Jaideep Shergill, Founding Partner, Pitchfork Partners, “Brands see it as a way of showcasing their superiority on performance, looks, etc. It’s a way of hijacking the rival’s agenda and neutralizing its campaign. In my view, it shows spitefulness and lack of imagination.”

“Comparative advertising is one of the ways for brands to communicate their relative superiority vis-à-vis the competition. However, to achieve desired response, the benefit should be conveyed in a manner that is relevant to the consumers and consistent with the brand personality,” says Kapil GroverCMO, Burger King India.

LK Gupta, Founder, CMOnow and Marketing Consulting
says there are three primary reasons why brands might resort to coming out with communication deriding one another. “Firstly, it might be done by a brand that doesn’t have a built equity or heritage in the minds of consumers and this becomes a shortcut to getting recognition. It’s basically a way of riding on the coat-tails of a successful competitor. Brands might also do it to reposition an established successful brand on a new parameter of product differentiation. Thus, they seek to distract consumers from a wellfollowed paradigm. Finally, I believe it is done by creative guys who are plain lazy and self-indulgent marketing managers.”

Commenting on the Haier-Voltas controversy, Gupta adds, “Most often it’s the third reason, where the marketing and creative people cannot see beyond their competition rather than focusing on how to communicate their own proposition in unadulterated terms.

In this case, Haier had not accounted for the fact that its ad would reinforce Voltas’ Mr Murthy and what he stands for even more for the consumer.”

“To achieve desired response, comparative advertising needs to be rooted strongly in the core proposition of the brand. Sometimes, it focuses too much on the weakness of the competition rather than its own strength. That is where it becomes ineffective.”

CMO, Burger King India

“It is advisable for brands to strongly stick to their own story, a story they will be able to back up with proof points. I don’t advocate a direct response (to comparative advertising) because all that does is shift attention to the fight rather than the brand or product.”

Founding Partner, Pitchfork Partners

Advertisements Complained Against – 5 Year Trend
The TVC for Godrej Ezee Liquid showed a product very similar to HUL’s Surf Excel and implied in the communication that the use of the detergent would harm woollen garments as the product is harsh on them.

Brand: Zee Rajasthan News
In its complaint, ETV Rajasthan said that the Zee Rajasthan News claim of being the No. 1 channel was a violation of BARC’s ‘Fair Usage Guidelines’ as neither the ad provided any data to substantiate its claims, nor did it meet BARC’s standards.

Brand: GCPL for Good Knight Active+ Neem
The complaint stated that a TVC talking about GCPL’s offering Good Knight Active+ Neem misled consumers into believing that the product had Neem as an important ingredient in it. However, disclaimers on the back of the pack mentioned that there was no natural Neem present in the product.

Brand: TV 18 Broadcast for CNN News18
The complaint by Times Now stated that CNN-News18’s claim of being No.1 was deceptive and misleading as it was based on only one week of BARC’s data. The complaint also claimed that the data pertaining to the four preceding weeks showed that Times Now was the leader of the English News genre.

General Trend of Complaints from Sectors 2016-2017

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