When Thums Up put Salman Khan on a makeshift stage and got him to hurl down the 'sweet versus strong' challenge, little did it know that it was giving a fresh lease of life to a less-exploited tactic in comparative advertising: masking.
To make a distinction, 'masking' is not comparative advertising in the strictest sense of the word. Comparative advertising is when Brand A claims that it is superior to Brand B, and in the process, actually names Brand B in its communication (the 'small car wars' being a good enough example from recent memory). However, in the case of masked comparative advertising, advertisers 'pixelate' and 'beep out' all reference to specific rival brands - but, of course, nobody is nobody's fool. Remember Thums Up's none-too-oblique references to Pepsi… oops, Poopsi?
Admittedly, 'masking' is not a new monkey - Indian advertisers have, in the past, used this technique to peddle their ware. It's just that now, masking is back with a vengeance. And unlike in the past, where 'Brand X' could have practically been any other rival brand (or when the competition was of a more generic 'aam-naariyal-tel' variety), references today are far from subtle.
Sample this. A recent commercial for Amul's condensed milk brand Mithai Mate shows a housewife labouring to open a can of condensed milk with a hammer, a chisel and an assortment of other tools. The pack shot of the can is suitably digitized, but leaves next to nothing to the imagination (Nestle Milkmaid, if you hadn't figured it out for yourself). The takeout, by the way, is that Mithai Mate is being retailed in an easy-open can.
Second example: an ad for Clinic All Clear anti-dandruff shampoo, where disgusted teenagers dismiss a particular brand's claim that it rids hair of dandruff '100 per cent'. Needless to say, the same bunch of youngsters goes wow about Clinic. Here too, the tall, straight blue-and-white pack shot of the rival brand is a dead giveaway. And yes, there are sound beeps galore - including one to block out what appears to be the F-word. Then there are the Surf and Tide ads all over the place. Orange pack in the Surf ad, blue-green-yellow pack in the Tide ad.
A masked attack need not limit itself to 'censoring' of audio-visual cues and mnemonics. It could extend to taking potshots at a rival brand's communication idea. The latest 'zara fresh socho' campaign for breath freshener brand Clorets - where Clorets takes a dig at Chlor-mint's laidback, wisecracking duo - is a case in point. Again, last year, there was a campaign for Vivaldi shirts that made jest of Peter England and Allen Solly, using these brands' 'alter ego' and Friday Dressing concepts, respectively. And Pepsi, Sprite and Thums Up have routinely made pointed references through their communication.
This only bears out the fact that comparative advertising has always existed. But the question is, why are more and more advertisers taking recourse to 'masked' attacks? Could it be that masking is a way of dodging penalty, should the rival choose to take the matter up with ASCI and MRTPC? After all, the fact that no specific rival brand has actually been named in the ad works in the advertiser's defense.
Kaushik Roy, executive director, Mudra Communications, thinks so. "In categories such as consumer durables and automotive, there are technical statistics to back a direct comparison," he says. "Here, the facts that are reproduced in ads have been culled out of documented material available with dealers. So you can compare speed or sound quality or whatever. But in many other categories, there is no functional difference between brands. Thums Up has no label or tag that says it has x amount of sugar, neither does Pepsi. So Thums Up cannot name Pepsi while claiming to be stronger, but says as much in the most obvious manner. Things like digitizing and colour-coding the rival minimize your chances of being hauled up by ASCI."
Pranesh Misra, director, Lowe Lintas & Partners, doesn't think it has anything to do with the governing bodies, but contends it's more a case of cultural sensibilities. "This only reflects the sensibilities of the market we operate in. In the US, advertisers would just go ahead and name the rival. But Asian markets don't like too much aggression. Consumers here don't take too kindly to your disparaging your rival." Roy agrees, but feels it's the local advertising/marketing community that is actually thin-skinned. "We take comparative advertising way too seriously, while abroad it's seen as fun. Even Pepsi, which has a reputation of having a sense of humour, could not take Thums Up lying down."
One thing that emerges is that 'masking' is more an FMCG phenomenon. "Unless you have something that is truly measurable, you cannot go for comparisons," says Kiran Khalap of chlorophyll. "And it is that much more difficult in FMCG categories." A Mumbai-based brand consultant adds that one of the problems with most FMCG brands is that their "ingredients are just about claim levels. Take any two rival brands and you'll find their critical ingredients on par. So they dare not call names."
But this does not stop advertisers from making thinly veiled references to the rival. Of course, there are situations where the market is more or less duopolistic, and any reference can mean only one thing (for example, Amul Mithai Mate). But in others, very often, the market has more than two players. Yet, a brand decides to pick on one rival over the others.
One reason for this is that every brand has to identify its closest competitor. Usually, one from whom it is trying to win market shares. "Whenever there is a brand that is entrenched in the market or occupies dominant mindshare, the number two and number three brands figure that their shares will come at the expense of the leader," points out Sanjay Nayak, senior vice-president & general manager, McCann-Erickson India.
Taking market share from the market leader is, by itself, not a good enough reason for comparative advertising. "The starting premise is that you have a superior technology or formulation vis-à-vis the market leader/average market," insists Misra. "Only then does a side-by-side comparison make sense. You must have some news to deliver about how your product has changed and improved."
That any sort of comparative advertising should - if at all - be done only by the number two and number three brands, not the market leader, is something everyone agrees upon. "A market leader will try and ignore any rival," says Roy. "So Coke will never make any reference to any drink, leave alone Pepsi. If it does, it would be acknowledging the competition. And no market leader can look desperate or threatened." Khalap agrees, adding, "When the market leader does this, it becomes just another contender to the crown instead of being the crown bearer."
The big question is, how worthwhile is comparative advertising? Leaving aside the question of ethics, what about the bother of having to answer to governing bodies, should competitors choose to hit back legally. And what about the fact that every comparative ad draws attention to the rival brand? "You must remember that you are paying for the ad and sharing your airtime with the competition, which could be counterproductive," cautions Nayak.
"I don't know if there are any easy and right answers to this," admits Roy. "It's very difficult to say when comparative advertising works and when it doesn't." Misra, for one, feels that when there are no tangible benefits for the consumer, the competition benefits the most.
Good idea or bad, Khalap adds a spin to the issue of taking market share by looking at penetration. "Comparative advertising makes sense when conversion is at the core, and you are looking to add consumers only from your rival. But in a country where most categories have only just got into double-digit penetration - and where soaps and detergents apart, few categories have more than 20 per cent penetration - what's the sense in brand wars? I have three consumers, you have five, and I want those five, when there are 25 other consumers whom I have not tapped. Marketers should be looking at market expansion. When usage and penetration are so low, any comparative advertising reduces the communication to an advertising war between ad agencies."
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