When brands brawl
Cell C this week lamented the fact that direct comparative advertising in South Africa is prohibited. The operator wants to publish straight price comparisons with its rivals, naming them in its ad campaigns. Should it be allowed to? By Duncan McLeod.
Cell C chief commercial officer Jose Dos Santos expressed frustration at a media conference on Monday that the operator, South Africa’s third-largest by subscriber numbers after Vodacom and MTN, is not allowed to engage in direct comparative advertising.
Dos Santos said the prohibition is bad for consumers, who are not offered direct comparisons between various operators’ products, and bad for the economy because comparative advertising greases the wheels of commerce.
He told journalists that Cell C, which in 2012 slashed data and voice tariffs and dramatically simplified its product plans in an effort to win market share, wants to show consumers that its bigger rivals’ tariffs are higher, in some cases significantly so.
Justin McCarthy, group MD at TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris in Durban and a director of the Association for Communication and Advertising, an advertising industry self-regulatory body, tells me that comparative advertising in South Africa is not technically banned but is governed by the Advertising Standards Authority’s Code of Advertising Practice.
“The clause that gives rise to the misconception that comparative advertising is banned is the one drawing attention to the provisions of the Trade Marks Act of 1993,” McCarthy explains. “Simply put, an advertiser may not make use of the trademarks belonging to another company. In this instance, Cell C may not make reference to Vodacom or MTN, both of which have registered their respective logos and brand names.”
Other limitations apply: claims must be capable of substantiation, must not mislead or confuse or infringe advertising goodwill, and no disparagement is tolerated. “The guiding principle is that products should be promoted on their own merits and not on the demerits of their competitors’ products,” McCarthy says.
He believes that in the US, where comparative advertising is commonplace, advertising messages are often “confusing”. They focus on “insignificant [details] of little benefit to the consumer. Regulated advertising forces marketers and agencies to think more laterally, to focus on differences of significance to the consumer, and to be more creative.”
He cites BMW’s 1990 campaign, which showed a driver steering one of its vehicles successfully around a rock fall on Chapman’s Peak Drive in Cape Town. Earlier, and in real life, a man had driven his Mercedes-Benz off the same road, only to walk away unscathed. The payoff line in the ad was an amusing poke by BMW at its rival. “Doesn’t it make sense to drive a luxury sedan that beats the ben(d)z?”
“This is archetypal stuff that makes use of an intelligent comparison to win hearts and minds — globally accepted to be a far more impactful and compelling way to cut through advertising clutter than statistical comparisons,” McCarthy says.
But Chris Moerdyk, who spent 16 years in the creative and client service departments of advertising agencies, says it’s a “tragedy” that direct comparative advertising is not allowed.
“The fact that we don’t have direct comparative advertising is literally not allowing the consumer to make a proper choice. This puts consumers at a huge disadvantage.”
Which is the better approach? It’s an emotive issue that has generated enormous debate over the years and there are strong arguments for and against it.
Ask consumers, though, and I’ll wager the vast majority would vote in favour of big brands slugging it out in their campaigns. Advertising creativity might suffer in the process but perhaps that’s a small price to pay if comparative advertising leads to more aggressive competition and lower prices. — (c) 2013 NewsCentral Media