Attack advertisements eventually will backfire – or go away

For several years we have been bombarded by very nasty attack advertisements from our political parties. Unfortunately, now the same trend has been copied by many companies.

Earlier this year, commercials have been appearing on our television screens for pain relievers in which one product claims to be doing the work of five pills from a named brand. Even automobile companies proclaim that their cars are much more efficient and provide more for your money than a competitor’s. An international sandwich chain sent a letter to a pizza rival, insisting that a rival retract advertisements that were highly critical of the large multi-national.

The chief executive of the offended company was pictured on television placing that letter in the oven of the company that started this controversy.

These episodes have become commonplace. Those so-called attack advertisements are proliferating as companies vie for consumers’ dollars; the recession, of course, has made those dollars relatively scarce. Company after company has participated in this offensive strategy.

The goal in every case is to boost sales, but attack ads can backfire, just as has been the case with politicians who have been overly offensive. Aggressive advertisements often convey a picture of an insecure company desperate for business. That could damage the company over the long term, while paradoxically temporarily stimulating sales.

What happens frequently is that attack ads lead to counter attacks. A claim that Company X’s products contain excessive salt, for instance, usually is answered by declaring that the other company contains something harmful. In the end, both companies are damaged by the fight.

The United States is the biggest offender in this type of trade war. Europe and Asia generally ban such attack ads.

The most successful ones usually do not specifically name the target company, an approach that is much more rewarding.

Naming names also can entail trouble. The National Advertising Branch of the Better Business Bureau is the organization that polices the industry.

It reported that the number of complaints rose significantly in the past year, primarily because of comparative advertising; litigation has followed with one company filing a lawsuit for making false claims. Resorting to the courts invites retaliation.

It would take a lot of persuasive advertising to compensate for all this trouble. Clearly, attack ads are a blot on the advertising profession. Ads are useful if they contain information, but attack advertising ordinarily is harmful.

Sooner or later these tactics will end. Ultimately, moral censure most times will assert itself.


Bruce Whitestone