Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Making Mud Pies: Mudslinging's Impact on Brands and Consumers

Photo: Brand Week

It’s crunch time in the U.S. presidential race and (to no surprise) we find ourselves being exposed to a plethora of political mudslinging. Since big bucks are involved (in 2006, most of the $164M spent on political advertising went towards attacks on the competition (USA Today)), I have often wondered whether or not these ads actually achieve the intended results. Notre Dame Marketing Professor Joel E. Urbany conducted research after the 2004 election and showed political mudslinging could work - to an extent. One article quotes his research: “Negative advertising, in spite of the fact that we don’t like it...can shift opinion...14% percent of those surveyed changed their minds about their favored candidate after watching negative ads.” Additionally, John Geer a political science professor at Vanderbilt University wrote a 2006 book (In Defense of Negativity) about how attack ads actually help the democratic process and can make campaigns more focused and productive. However, in a USA Today article, Ray Seidelman, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College said: "Negative ads only work in two situations — when you are incredibly desperate or when you're incredibly close to the end.” And ND's Urbany has said he is now reconsidering his 2004 study based on the fact that this year the number of negative political ads outnumber the positive ones (he wonders if they will actually have a reverse effect).

Although typically we think of mudslinging when it comes to politics, brands have also used attack ads over the years to try to bring more business their way (or prevent people from purchasing competitors' products). Some of the culprits? Mega brands Miller vs. Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi Co. vs. Coca-Cola, Progresso vs. Campbell’s, Apple vs. Microsoft, and Arby’s vs. McDonald’s and Burger King. Some examples? How about Progresso claiming Campbell's was a child’s brand - a battle that has recently evolved into Campbell's ads attacking Progresso's ingredients (photo above). Then there are "classic" blind taste test ads between Pepsi and Coke. In 2006, many of you may recall Arby’s claiming they used 100% chicken in their sandwiches unlike McDonald’s and Burger King (who only used 70%). And what about the never-ending "I'm a Mac" vs. "I'm a PC" saga? Or who can forget the continual battle of the brewers? Even right now, when some of us may have thought the "low-carb" fad was over, there's an ad for MGD Light 64 that shows someone asking for a Michelob Ultra "64" and the server pouring out half of the bottle of beer. Yes, attack ads have become a staple in modern day advertising. But what do experts say about this practice? What is the impression you’re creating on the consumer? And are you doing your brand image - one that you've spent a lot of time building up - a disservice by resorting to negative advertising? Although there could be a legal/libel risk in bashing your competitor, could you also make your brand less appealing to consumers?

Just last month, David Dunne, a professor of Marketing and Advertising at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management wrote an article about attack ads. He states: “Attack ads work in politics because political campaigns are different from advertising soap or shampoo. Voter psychology, timing and competition make it inevitable that one or both sides will use negative ads during a campaign.” The key idea here is that in political campaigns, people are more likely to distrust politicians and thus believe bad things about them, and that compressed timing works to an advantage. “In business, advertising campaigns are designed to build brand equity over time.” The WSJ reports: "Attack ads, when they get too intense, can confuse consumers. Several years ago, an ad war between SABMiller's Miller Brewing (now MillerCoors) and Anheuser-Busch got so heated that it was hard to keep track of which ad was for which brewer..." And just today, Brand Week posted an article noting expert opinions on the increase in business-related attack ads. They reported this tactic could actually hurt the brands involved and put entire product categories at risk: "If I'm a consumer, all of a sudden, I might say, 'Canned soup might be convenient, but I know it's not as wholesome as soup I might buy at a Whole Foods or gourmet shop,'" said Paul Kurnit, a marketing professor at Pace University, New York." CEO of the Wisner Marketing Group, Jim Wisner stated: "Private labels tend to get a boost when big brands engage in a category battle."
But even with these risks, attack ads are on the rise. A couple of weeks ago the Wall Street Journal reported: "The National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which acts as the ad police, is fielding many more complaints from marketers who believe they are the victim of misleading comparison ads...September also saw complaints jump about 50 percent from last year..." They also wrote that Russ Klein (president of global marketing strategy at Burger King), said "over the next 12 months, the company's customers are going to get a "richer dose" of competitive ads than they have in the past 12." I'm not sure this is the direction companies should be taking.

We all know the big thing currently on consumers' minds is the economy. Since people are feeling down in the dumps about money, I highly doubt a bunch of negative ads are going to encourage them to up their spending. To me, most of these negative ads say "I'm a tattletale" -or- "I'm a big bully." Who ever likes someone like that? I think what consumers want to hear right now instead is "I'm a bargain" or "I'm someone you can trust." For example, a better execution of the Campbell's campaign would be to not even mention the competition. Why? Campbell's claims "consumers are reading food labels 60 percent more than they did a year ago (WSJ)." Through ads solely focusing on Campbell's and their ingredients, they should be able to convince health-conscious individuals to buy their product without leaving a muddy taste in consumers' mouths and possibly degrading their wholesome brand image.


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