Negative political advertising campaigns may enjoy a high profile but comparative business advertising is still relatively unusual in Britain, writes Robert Dwek.
Another general election, another round of political ad campaigns. The Tories have already made a splash with their 'demon eyes' press ad of Tony Blair. This burst of creativity, captioned 'New Labour, new danger' was deemed offensive enough to involve the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), but also was Campaign magazine's campaign of the year. And remember the first modern political ad - 'Labour isn't working' - in the run-up to Thatcher's 1979 triumph? Much is being made of the pros and cons of negative political advertising, but is business advertising moving relentlessly in the same direction?
Well, in the early to mid-1980s, not long after Saatchi & Saatchi's first shocker, there was the lawnmower war: Qualcast versus Flymo. The latter's advertising slogan asked: 'Why slow mow when you can Flymo?' The long-established but much disconcerted rival counter-acted with the memorable line: 'It's a lot less bovver than a Hover'. Each used product demonstrations to try to convince a bemused public that their grass-cutter was the best. The effect was probably beneficial to both in boosting total market size, the war subsided and the two combatants settled into a less public rivalry.
People in the advertising community tend to cite the above campaign with an almost misty-eyed nostalgia, partly because comparative advertising (marketing folk prefer not to use the 'negative advertising' label) has not taken off in the way that many people once predicted.
It is not because the rules are too strict, according to the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC). A spokesman for the advertising watchdog says that, 'some people would like less restrictions but most are happy with the status quo'. Most advertisers, he adds, are 'pretty well aware of the limits, although there is the occasional one we have to restrain slightly'.
A spokeswoman for the Independent Television Commission (ITC), tells us what these limits are: 'Advertisers must not unfairly attack or discredit other products or services, advertisers or advertisements expressly or by implication'.
There are, of course, many instances where company A complains vociferously that company B has, by implication, rubbished it off - for example, if it has claimed to be x% faster, cheaper or whatever than the competition.
But attention-grabbing examples are few and far between. More recent ones include the 1994 Hyundai press ad headlined, 'These days, even a kettle comes with a longer warranty than a Rover'. Then there was the 1995 Colgate Palmolive poster ad pitching its mouth rinse ('As approved by the British Dental Authority') against that of rival Warner Wellcome's ('As approved by a dragon called Clifford'). And just a month later we witnessed a Volvo press ad which depicted a BMW 520i driving over a cliff, accompanied by the caption, 'Some comparisons are just too hard to bear'.
Robin Wight, chairman of WCRS, the ad agency behind the Qualcast ads, as well as an '80s Wilkinson Sword campaign that took a swipe at Gillette, is confident that the UK will see more comparative advertising. It is 'a high-risk, tactical weapon normally only used in brand emergencies,' he says. 'It's like brain surgery - one slip of the scalpel and the patient could be dead.' The key to success, he believes, is that you have to reveal an essential truth about the competitor; and it also helps if they are a weaker brand.
This is an important consideration. If your own brand is clearly weaker than your rival's, comparative advertising may serve merely to remind the reader of the alternatives. And the nature of the consumer market is important too. An ASA spokesman points out how much more restrictive laws and attitudes are on the Continent. In Germany a company is considered by the consumer to be grossly indecent if it refers in any way at all to a competitor in its advertising.
Comparative advertising in the US is in much ruder health, of course.
It accounts for an estimated 35% of all ads, compared with a minuscule 1% in the UK. Things changed significantly in the mid-70s when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) finally decided that advertising comparisons could provide useful information to consumers. The caveat was that comparisons had to be made in a 'truthful and non-deceptive' manner. Neither this caveat nor the existence of tough trade libel laws has prevented a more aggressive stance on comparative advertising. The infamous instance of the FTC charging Volvo for allegedly weakening the roofs of rival cars (before running a tractor over them in a commercial highlighting Volvo's tank-like strength) is a case in point. Dan Jaffe of the Association of National Advertisers says: 'It's considered a very well-accepted part of the advertising process in this country. But it's not a free-for-all; there's a referee in the ring and your competitors have weapons too.'
Back in the UK, WCRS's Wight warns that the British market will continue to be restrained by its 'culture of indirectness' but listening to another ad agency insider it seems to be more about the equally long-standing culture of snobbery. It is, he says, 'a bit too much like school-ground behaviour - my brother's bigger than yours, and all that. It's not a very grown-up way of doing things.' Try telling that to Conservative Central Office.