The recent Taj Mahal Tea advertisements that show tabla maestro Zakir Hussain challenging viewers to find a better tea, have had many of its rivals fuming and, in the process, set alight the debate on "comparative" advertising yet again.
Of course, punching the competition is nothing new. It is one of the more commonly used traditions in advertising. As an advertising professional puts it, it is one of those "ongoing" things that break out in a rash every now and then.
Earlier, there was the Surf and Ariel washing powder saga, and then there was the "scientific" finding that Pepsodent was 102 times better than Colgate. And, of course, Pepsi and Coke have been busy trying to convince consumers that their respective coloured waters were better and bolder than the other.
There are quite a few ways in which such undercutting can be done. First, making claims that cannot be independently verified. And, then, there is the more widespread way, of saying something that is just a half-truth. For example, take the popular trick of advertising something as "so-many-times" better. Like XYZ washes three times whiter. Rarely does anyone ask - whiter than what? A brick? "What is being done here is a comparative measure. But what is the reference, and the database? Three people or a thousand? What are the parameters of the research? These are the important questions here," points out Anand Halve, brand consultant at the Mumbai-based brand consultancy firm, chlorophyll.
Halve advocates making it mandatory for advertisers to make the research available to anybody who asks for it. Yet, does such advertising work? "The name of the game is to get noticed, and such advertisements score well on this point," says Sam Balsara, chairman and managing director, Madison Communications. Balsara, a former chairman of the ASCI, however, warns that such advertising can harm the credibility of the product. Confirms an ASCI official, "In the end, this is much more effective than any legal action. Such advertising, in effect, ends up damaging the credibility of the product."
While the fuming goes on, there is not much that can be done from a legal standpoint. The ASCI relies more on peer pressure to bring erring advertisers to see the error of their ways. If a complaint is brought before the ASCI, then a letter is send to the erring advertiser in a week. The response is awaited, and then discussed in the monthly meeting of the ASCI, which asks the erring advertiser to either modify the advertisement or to withdraw it. Industry sources say that the method has been quite effective, with four out of five cases that are brought to its attention, being remedied by sending off a stiff letter. Not surprising, given that most of the major advertising agencies are part of the organisation.
While the offending agency and the advertiser still get a second chance, the only problem is the damage has been done. Or has it? "Consumers take such advertisements with a pinch of salt anyway. Just because Zakir says so, I wonder how many are convinced that Taj Mahal is a better brand of tea," muses a senior media planner. In fact, such fights have more to do with increasing competition. The number of complaints that are received now has gone up as the markets have become tougher.
So what is the solution? Observers point out that an external body can only complicate the problem. Running down a rival's product is implicit in any advertising, what matters is when it is done explicitly. And, at the end of the day, what is important is the credibility of the message. Negative campaigns have not done well by being just negative - Bakeman's "Do you want a hole?" campaign for Minto, pitched against Nestle's Polo - the mint with a hole - flopped.
And so, while the maestro might enjoy his cup of tea, the whole debate might just turn out to be a storm in a teacup.
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