The recent ruling by the Federal Court of Justice in Karslruhe permitting comparative advertising in Germany represents a major reversal for a cosy commercial culture which historically has rejected the idea of companies criticising competitors.
The court’s decision was broadly welcomed by advertisers and agencies, ending as it does a long-held industry curb and ensuring that German law is now in line with European Union legislation scheduled for implementation in April 2000.
Agencies have already started to study the opportunities for adopting a more aggressive approach in their commercial communications.
But while the issue of comparative advertising raises strong emotions among Germany’s business people, it is likely that ads which make direct comparisons with competitors will be used sparingly.
Bernd Michael, chief executive of Grey Middle Europe, voiced a common industry view when he explained the implications of the new freedom to the Sddeutsch Zeitung newspaper: “Until now we’ve been playing on a table tennis table. Now we have a whole football field if we want.”
He argues that while agencies will be learning the rules of the broader game, they should recognise when it might make more sense to stick to “table tennis”. First you must establish whether a product has unique technical benefits. Then you have to decide whether these benefits can be explained to the public. Finally, you must determine whether people want to hear about them or not.
As Michael points out: “Suppose you own a Mercedes and I want to sell you a BMW, it could be that comparative advertising will be a real turn off for you if I rubbish your car.”
Even in the US, where com parative advertising is accepted as part of the fabric of competition, there is always a danger that it may backfire.
Speaking on business ethics at Chicago’s Loyola University, Ameritech’s senior vice-president of corporate communications, Joan Walker, explained why her company is avoiding the vogue for comparative advertising within the telecoms industry. “If we got down in the mud to engage in negative ads and media backbiting, customers may come to feel as bad about us as they do about the competitor we malign.”
There is always a balance to be struck be tween using hard-hitting communications ideas to build a powerful brand in a competitive climate and offending consumers with over-zealous criticism of competitor brands.
In Europe, where consumers tend to favour informative and entertaining campaigns above negative ones, the dangers of offending potential customers with direct attacks on competitor brands will often outweigh the anticipated benefits.