Brands Can Be Mean

Remember back when it was taboo to mention your competitors in your advertising? 10 years ago you told people why they should buy your product, not why they shouldn’t buy another. Back when Bounty kicked the snot out of “the competitor brand” in those absorbency tests, your mind had to make some leaps to place Brawny in that role (#ObscureReference). Nowadays it’s commonplace to name AND insult your competition in any and all forms of advertising, and you don’t even have to be subtle to get away with it.

If I can go off on a tangent for a moment, I’d like to pinpoint the exact moment that “nowadays” became a real word. I assume that some stubborn old man with terrible grammar was made very happy that day.

Burger King even had a spot a few years ago where the King broke into McDonald’s headquarters and stole – STOLE – the recipe for their breakfast sandwich, toting theirs as exactly the same (nice unique selling proposition, by the way). I remember when I first saw that, I thought it was totally out of line, but now I can’t seem to explain to myself why anyone should think that.

During the Advertising Week influencer summit, one of my very intelligent and particularly outspoken competitors talked about the humanization of brands – the idea that for the first time, brands can fill the role of social influencer and directly engage in consumer conversation. It was a brilliant (and quite eloquent) point, and I believe it’s the reason for the recent trend of marketing trash talk. Social media allows brands to be edgy, funny, smart, and a host of other human adjectives. Along with that comes the inherent negative set (which I’m especially well versed in): competitive, snobbish and arrogant. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing; I can think of a few luxury brands that want to purvey as much snobbishness as possible. It’s simply part of the game. Brands want to be your friend, and sometimes our friends are kinda mean.

If anything, it forces brands to stay on top of their game. When companies know that their competitors will market their flaws and shortcomings, their forced to minimize them, and consumers win. The auto industry might be the best example. You can’t make a broadcast spot without explaining that your car gets better mileage than competitor A, more horsepower than competitor B, and that J.D. Power & Associates said you’re, like, totally way cooler than competitor C. Social marketing is no different, and this particularly hilarious tweet by Audi is a great example:


It’s no surprise then that auto manufacturers are always upping the bar on power, speed, efficiency, design and value – their competitors are pretty clearly outlining where they need to improve (in BMW’s case, perhaps an “are you sure you want to publish” filter is in order).

My fear is that this behavior goes down a not-so-classy path and begins to embody political advertising, where the message seems to be “this other guy will send America whirling into a second depression/WW3 hybrid, so vote for me because I won’t.” If brands keep the jabs light hearted and relevant to their personal marketing message, I think the comparative advertising trend is good for consumers and brands alike. Let’s just hope no one takes it personal.



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