Pros and cons of comparative ads

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Companies have been using combative advertising since long before Boniva v. Actonel. But when is this sort of aggressive advertising appropriate? What are the risks and benefits? Should drug companies adopt the tone of Coke v. Pepsi?

Ken Zasky
Starlink Worldwide

Not only is combative advertising appropriate, but it is also essential to make a point of differentiation between your product and the competition. With FDA regulations preventing companies from choosing product names, it is imperative that the consumer be able to distinguish product differences so they can request specific brands from their physicians. When combative advertising begins with consumer-centric media planning, brands can carve a niche in the media marketplace—away from any competitive shouting match—with a solid understanding of and relation to the target's motivations, interests and lifestyle. Rather than outshout the competition, consumer-driven insights can lead the brand to creative and media mixes that captivate consumer attention and give the brand an individual strength without getting lost. Good advertising is about fighting smarter, not fighting harder.

Cary Silvers
Director, research/advertising trends,

According to our annual DTC survey of consumer reaction to drug advertising, communicating risks and benefits are the consumer's fundamental expectation of DTC ads. Specifically, 75% of consumers say they are looking for the benefits of the meds; 79% say they are looking for the serious risks; and 71% say they are looking for other side effects. When it comes to comparative advertising, 49% of consumers say they are looking for information about a medicine's effectiveness compared to similar meds. While this is behind the desire for risk and benefit information, it's still a sizable amount of interest. The bottom line? Whether an advertiser chooses to go the comparative route or not, the consumer has an expectation of both fairness and balance—and they'll likely make the effort to seek them out.

Anne Devereux

Differentiation is a foundation of good marketing and a compelling differentiation is a hallmark of great brands. This works best in three scenarios:
• Defining identity: Apple would not be what it is today without its foils—IBM and the PC;
• Establishing a new entrant as a viable alternative: MCI's ability to compete with AT&T was driven by price and parity; and
• Shifting the buying criteria: Miller Lite seized on a trend and elicited a response from Bud Light about its carb count.
Noticeably absent is highlighting product superiority, an approach which loses credibility. For Pharma, the Internet becomes a better source for head-to-head comparisons. More data can be presented thoroughly and appropriately, increasing the relevance and impact of the message, and enabling brands to use advertising to build a unique identity, not knock the other guy.

Phil Deschamps
President, CEO
GSW Worldwide

Comparative advertising to consumers—whether it is applied to soft drinks, beer or politics—undermines the confidence or appeal of brands. In health and wellness this has serious consequences. It can cause confusion, anxiety and require physicians to spend time with patients explaining comparative claims. There is also greater potential for backlash from healthcare providers, patients and regulatory groups. Marketers would be wise to focus more on defining new disease states and creating new views of an existing disease. By changing the way the marketplace views a disease and showing why a product is the appropriate treatment to address the need, pharmaceutical marketers can aggressively distinguish their products from their competitors'.
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