Topic: Critical Advertising of Competitor
Characters: Clyde, Product manager for Wonderwipe toilet tissue; Peg, Copywriter for Finch & Ascher (F&A) Advertising Agency Ray, Art director for F&A Advertising Agency
Peg has been doing packaged goods copywriting for Finch & Ascher (F&A) Advertising since graduating with a B.A. in Communications from General University three years ago. She has just been assigned to a new account for the agency, Wonderwipe toilet tissue. In her initial meeting with the client product manager, Clyde, she is briefed on the product, market, and competition. Clyde explains that toilet paper (always euphemistically called “toilet tissue” in advertising) is generally purchased on the basis of one or more criteria: brand name, price, package size (sheets per roll), texture, design (color/graphics), and strength. He explains that the Wonderwipe name is unknown since it is a new brand. It is to be a premium-priced brand and will be positioned against the market leader, Myrtle’s, as superior along the color/graphics dimension. The brand comes in five never-before-used shades which studies show blend best with the most typical bathroom decors in the U.S., and the product sports graphics preferred by consumers two to one over those of any toilet tissue currently on the market.
Clyde tells Peg that Wonderwipe’s print and television advertising is to spoof the Myrtle brand as being plain and boring in appearance-the type of toilet tissue you’d be embarrassed to have guests see in your bathroom now that there is the aesthetically pleasing Wonderwipe. The mood is to be one of light humor, yet the message should be bashing in nature: Myrtle’s is now definitely inferior and old-fashioned. Clyde does not want the ads to discuss package size because Wonderwipe will actually contain 25 fewer sheets per roll than Myrtle’s (research show that this will not be noticed by 90 percent of buyers and users), nor are ads to mention texture (Wonderwipe is slightly less soft and squeezable than Myrtle’s, but use tests suggest that 85 percent of customers won’t notice this difference). The advertising also will not describe strength (Wonderwipe is 20 percent thinner than Myrtle’s, yet 80 percent of customers fail to detect this difference).
After her meeting with Clyde, Peg starts to wonder whether she should bow to the client’s wishes. To date she had been thankful that she hasn’t had to do head-to-head comparison advertising (making comparisons to a named competitor). As a consumer, she detests this form of advertising. In her mind, it is nasty and unprofessional. She personally has a lower opinion of brands that do comparison advertising, and she suspects that other consumers might feel this way too. She also feels that the incomplete and possibly irrelevant comparison suggested by Clyde would unjustly malign Myrtle’s and would constitute misrepresentation. She recalls reading that research studies on comparative advertising are equivocal regarding effectiveness of this approach: there is some evidence that comparison advertising is frequently confusing to consumers in that they forget who was compared to whom.
In order to check her assumptions, Peg discusses her meeting with Clyde over lunch with Ray, her best friend at F&A. Ray tells Peg that as art director he has worked on quite a few comparative campaigns over the years and has no misgivings about them. He explains that
comparison advertising is fairly popular, and so it must work. Ray reminds Peg that the FTC supports comparative advertising as a way of helping consumers to make informed purchasing decisions. The commission does require that comparative claims be substantiated, and this is clearly no problem for Wonderwipes. Comparison ads are especially believed to be beneficial to marketers of new and little-known brands who are competing against better-known brands. Furthermore, Ray insists that such advertising encourages competition and might even force Myrtle’s to improve the design of their toilet tissue, thus benefiting more customers.
Peg still feels uneasy. She thinks that just focusing on the positive quality of Wonderwipes would be more effective. However, Peg isn’t even sure if this would be aboveboard; after all, ignoring the design attribute, Wonderwipes is basically an inferior toilet tissue. She wonders whether she should share some of her concerns with Clyde.
Author: Geoffrey P. Lantos, Associate Professor of Marketing, Stonehill College.
What Are the Relevant Facts?
- Clyde, product manager for Wonderwipe toilet tissue, a new brand, suggests that Peg, copywriter for F&A advertising agency, write comparison advertising for Wonderwipes, positioning it as being superior to Myrtle’s, the market leader, along the design (color and graphics) attribute. Wonderwipes does, in fact, come in five appealing shades not used by the competition, and its graphics are preferred by consumers two to one.
- Toilet paper is usually bought on the basis of one or more of the following criteria: brand name, price, package size (sheets per roll), texture, design, and strength.
- Wonderwipes is inferior to Myrtle’s along the following dimensions: package size, texture, and strength. Yet, between 80 and 90 percent of consumers cannot distinguish Wonderwipe’s inferiority along these criteria.
- Clyde wants Peg’s advertising to spoof Myrtle’s as being boring and old-fashioned in print and TV ads that are lightly humorous yet bashing in nature.
- Clyde does not want the advertising to mention the dimensions along which Wonderwipes is inferior.
- Peg personally dislikes competitive advertising, finding it to be nasty and unprofessional.
- Peg suspects that consumers share her low opinion of brands that do comparison advertising.
- Peg believes that the suggested incomplete and possibly irrelevant comparison would amount to misrepresentation.
- It is not clear how effective comparison advertising is.
- Some research evidence Peg has seen suggests that a competitive brand might win public sympathy as a victim and that consumers are confused by comparison advertising.
- Ray, art director at F&A, believes that the FTC supports comparative ads as a useful way to help consumers make informed decisions.
- Comparative claims are legal as long as they can be substantiated, and this is clearly the case with Wonderwipes.
- Comparative claims are believed to be especially effective for marketers of little known brands competing against better-known brands (e.g., Wonderwipes vs. Myrtle’s).
- Comparative ads might have the effect of encouraging competition, thereby leading to higher quality in the product category.
What Are the Ethical Issues?
- Is comparison advertising inherently unethical? Does it hit below the belt? Is it unprofessional?
- Is it unethical to market a product which is inferior on most salient attributes?
- Is it wrong to poke fun at a competitor’s brand?
- Is it deceptive to withhold important negative information about one’s brand? Does the marketer have a duty to provide such potentially damaging information?
- Does an incomplete and possibly irrelevant comparison constitute misrepresentation?
- Because the proposed ads would be legal, does that mean they would be ethical?
- Does the fact that many others (possibly including Wonderwipe’s competitors) do comparison advertising make it morally justifiable?
- Does the fact that Wonderwipes is just starting out as a small brand against a large, entrenched competitor justify making the suggested comparison?
- Does the possibility of annoying and/or confusing consumers cause comparison advertising to be unethical?
- Does a copywriter have the right to overrule the client’s ideas?
Who Are the Primary Stakeholders?
- What is the appropriate level of analysis (systemic, corporate, individual) to use in identifying the primary stakeholders?
- Who are the primary stakeholders?
- Ray (assuming he will be involved in artistic direction on the account)
- Wonderwipe company
- Toilet tissue consumers
- Myrtle’s toilet tissue and other competitive brands
- F&A Advertising
What Are the Possible Alternatives?
- Peg could create a comparison campaign in accordance with Clyde’s wishes.
- Peg could try to persuade Clyde that the proposed comparison campaign would be ineffective and/or immoral.
- Peg could develop copy focusing solely on the positive virtues of Wonderwipes and hope that this will please Clyde.
- Peg could ask her superior to take her off the account since doing the suggested work would conflict with her personal values.
- Peg could suggest that Clyde improve the quality of the product.
- Peg could suggest doing the proposed campaign but not mentioning the competitor by name (the “Brand X” or “leading brand” approach).
- Peg could suggest doing the comparison while including affirmative disclosure of the brand’s negative features.
What Are the Ethics of the Alternatives?
- Ask questions based on a “utilitarian” perspective. For example:
- Which possible alternative would offer the greatest benefit to the greatest number?
- How would costs be measured in this situation?
- Do the benefits of being consistent with your personal values outweigh the probable costs of doing less effective advertising or of potentially displeasing the client?
- Ask questions based on a “rights” perspective. For example:
- What does each stakeholder have a right to expect?
- Which alternative(s) would you not want imposed on you if you were Peg? Clyde? Ray? A consumer? Myrtle’s?
- What are Clyde’s rights as a client?
- Does Peg have a right to protest?
- Ask questions based on a “justice” perspective. For example:
- Which alternative distributes the benefits and burdens most equitably among the stakeholders?
- Which stakeholders bear the greatest burden if Peg refuses to work on the campaign as Clyde proposes?
- Which alternative(s) demonstrate a fair process? A fair outcome?
What Are the Practical Constraints?
- Clyde might have his mind firmly made up.
- Resigning from the account might not be possible for Peg to do without jeopardizing her job and, perhaps, even her career.
- If Peg refuses to go along with Clyde, another copywriter might be assigned to do the advertising anyway.
- Improving the product while still earning a satisfactory return might not be feasible for Wonderwipes.
- Affirmative disclosure would probably be highly ineffective.
What Actions Should Be Taken?
- What action steps should Peg take?
- Which alternatives) would you choose if you were in Peg’s position? Why?
- Which ethical theories (utilitarian, rights, justice) make the most sense as they relate to this situation? Why?