Ads that hit raw nerves: More than a war of words can develop when a company knocks a rival's product, writes Roger Trapp

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COMPARATIVE advertising - or, to put it in the jargon, 'knocking copy' - seems to be breaking out all over. The latest and most bitter example, the soap war between multinationals Unilever and Procter & Gamble, is rapidly spinning towards the courts.

Other examples are legion. Procter & Gamble is also embroiled in a dispute over the merits of painkilling drugs. Kwik Save has taken to comparing directly its prices for individual goods with those in rival supermarkets. Even the Independent is making a distinction between its ownership and that of its rivals in the quality newspaper price war.

The advertising industry would have it that there is nothing particularly new about such aggressive tactics. Rather, it argues, the popularity of comparative advertising ebbs and flows - and we are now merely at high tide.

Among the most frequent users of knocking copy is the car industry. Take Hyundai, currently seeking to raise awareness of its vehicles with a series of light-hearted efforts such as 'Even a kettle has a longer guarantee than Rover'.

Telecommunications and computer companies have also taken this route of late: Mercury has used aggressive advertising in its increasingly hostile battle with BT.

The car companies have generally proved robust about this kind of approach, according to Caroline Crawford, head of external affairs at the Advertising Standards Authority. Others have not: a campaign launched towards the end of the 1980s led to a series of mutual complaints by the battery makers Duracell and Ever Ready.

Last autumn saw two such disputes. The Daily Mirror began running posters by Saatchi and Saatchi in Liverpool and Manchester based on Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn's negative comments about the two cities. The Sun retaliated by threatening legal action and putting up posters attacking comments made by the Mirror.

Similarly, Van Den Berghs, part of Unilever, provoked a battle with a campaign for its low-fat spread, Delight, that made taste comparisons with St Ivel Gold, produced by Unigate, and parodied some of its ad lines. St Ivel reacted by producing an ad for Gold that targeted Flora, another Van Den Berghs product, and turned one of Flora's advertising catchlines, 'For your blooming generation', into 'For your ballooning generation'. The argument was that Flora contained twice as much fat as Gold.

Amusing as it might have been to everybody except Van Den Berghs, it led to a telling-off from the Advertising Standards Authority on the grounds that, as Flora was a different type of low- fat spread, a full-fat margarine, St Ivel was not comparing like with like. That is a cardinal advertising sin, though doubtless the distinction was lost on most customers.

The disagreement ended with the ASA, which polices all advertisements except those on television or radio, merely asking the advertisers to refrain from the approach. The year before, Amstrad, the computer company, found itself in the High Court after running ads knocking Compaq. That affair resulted in an out-of-court settlement. But as Philip Circus, legal affairs director at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, points out, the potential legal pitfalls are considerable.

Besides running up against the ASA's code of practice, which requires that comparisons be fair and not escalate into denigration, such campaigns can easily fall foul of trademarks and copyright legislation. Since most well-known brands are trademarks and reproduction of them without permission amounts to infringement, there are many difficulties, Mr Circus says. 'In theory, comparative advertising is legal in this country, but in practice it's a serious headache for those who want to engage in it.'

The Trademarks Bill, due to come into force in the autumn, is supposed to liberalise use of trademarks. But as the courts are expected to take account of ASA guidelines, little change isexpected.

The situation is very different in other countries. In the US, knocking copy is used openly, as demonstrated by the dispute involving Procter & Gamble in the drugs trade. In some Continental European countries, it is outlawed. Belgium and Germany regard it as tantamount to unfair competition. Even the long-running and relatively innocuous Carlsberg commercial with the tagline 'Probably the best lager in the world' could not be run in those countries.

Likewise, says Lionel Stanbrook, public affairs director of the Advertising Association, car hire company Avis's 'We try harder' ad would not be allowed in Germany because, although nobody is named, Hertz is presumed to be the only real competitor.

Unsurprisingly, efforts to produce a European Directive harmonising rules on comparative advertising across the EU have so far come to naught.

Such confusion has contributed to the ambivalent attitude towards the concept in this country. Some advertising people admit to a liking for a 'good scrap', and the extra business it can bring. Others shy away on grounds of taste, insisting, in the words of one, that throwing dirt around is 'not very edifying'.

More pertinently, the business case for knocking the opposition is not well-founded. The early 1980s saw one of the most celebrated comparative advertising campaigns, when the then Wight Collins Rutherford Scott produced ads for Qualcast that directly attacked Flymo's hover lawnmower with the line 'It's a lot less bovver than a hover'. The campaign attracted the same sort of attention as that being witnessed now in the battle of words between the makers of Persil and Ariel. It resulted in Flymo complaining to the Independent Broadcasting Authority and to public tests of the two machines.

But it also demonstrated the futility of such disputes: a decade later, few in advertising can even remember who came out on top. Many in the industry argue it takes even less time for the public to forget the point.

Moreover, says Jeremy Clarke of the advertising agency McCann- Erikson, purely knocking something tends to lose the respect of the reader. This is important, since, as he points out, all advertisements are conversations with someone thinking about buying something.

'In a market where comparisons have to be made it's sometimes forgivable if you've done it in an amusing way and not slagged off the other company, and you've retained the dignity of your own brand.'

This attitude is echoed by Ms Crawford at the ASA, who points out that some advertisers believe knocking copy amounts to giving rivals free promotion.

Despite his involvement in the St Ivel battle, Simon Turner, marketing director of Van Den Berghs, says that this is particularly dangerous ground for brand leaders, who can devalue their products by comparing them with others and 'making them look like the gold standard'.

'You have to weigh that disadvantage against telling the world you've got something better than the opposition,' he adds. Even so, advertisers should beware of being seen as dirty or vindictive, as that can belittle the brand.

The real gainers, according to Mr Circus of the IPA, are new entrants to a market - which may explain the prevalence of comparative advertising in the high-technology arena. 'Comparative advertising comes into its own because one of the most logical bases is, 'I make the same as him, but mine is half the price'.'

This style of campaign will probably always exist in one form or another, as all advertising is essentially comparative. After all, the aim is to persuade the consumer to buy one product rather than another.

(Photograph omitted)