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Monday, Sep. 24, 2007 at 8:12 am

Soar High, Aim Low: Trash Talking Competitors

By Jeffrey Eisenberg
September 24th, 2007

Is it OK to trash-talk your competitors in advertisements?


Eric from Marketing.FM points out a Continental Airlines NYC subway ad that trashes United.

I have seen a number of these subway ads recently and was surprised to see the direct attacks against other airlines. Effective? I am not sure. I do not pretend to know the rules on writing your competitors within your own copy, but I feel that something is not right with it.

As if the airlines didn’t have enough people talking trash about them… Let us know what you think about ads like this.

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Comments (11)

  1. Trash talking your competitors has always been part of marketing ads. With this particular ad, its a definate jab, that’s obvious, take a look around and you will see other cases of this type of advertising, such as Allstate Insurance, ‘we offer what other companies do not’ in reference to Allstate will take $100 off of your deductable each year you’re accident free. Continental is stating the same message, ‘we can do this, our competition cannot’. They (Continental) have chosen to use a negative voice whereas Allstate takes a stab at sugar coating it. Continental could have stated, ‘The subway can’t take you to Berlin, but we can’ and would have had a positive voice in that ad. Whether or not it’s effective depends on how the consumers interpret it.

  2. While you could argue Continental’s copy illustrates its benefits to consumers – always a good thing – it also reminds potential travelers of the hassles of air travel. Running down the competition in a troubled industry only serves to highlight those troubles to all customers. I’d hope Continental has a better message for its customers than “we’re better than nothing.”

  3. @ Tim: I agree. the “We’re better than nothing” message is delivered while not really saying anything else.

    @ Jeffrey: I love the headline.

  4. I like this ad. While, as a subway ad, it may be slightly off-brand, and it would be much more complicated if it were part of a national campaign, it still works. I take the subway each day and have seen this ad before. It made me remember Continental Airlines, not the specific competitor they mention (United).

    Since many Americans associate Continental with above-average service and customer satisfaction, it may be hard for some of us to separate that message from this ad about international travel — but that’s exactly what Continental’s trying to do. They’re not saying United isn’t a decent domestic carrier. To me, they’re saying “Hey, we can talk about quality all day long, but the simple fact is that not all domestic carriers are equal when it comes to international travel. Don’t think of us as a local carrier. The subway’s a local carrier and United may as well be, IF you’re trying to get to Berlin.”

    It’s on the edge, but I think it’s a great use of context to make an impact.

    I first saw this ad on the A Train, which will take you to JFK Airport, but won’t take you, as they say, to Berlin.

    (Also, since big subway advertisers tends to buy the entire side of a train car, I wonder what the other Continental ads had to say. This is the only one I recall. I’ll be ready with my cell phone camera the next time I see this campaign :) )

    P.S. — In case anyone from Continental’s reading this: Where were you when I was in Berlin last year? I had to fly Air Berlin — which lost my luggage and booked me on a flight with an impossible connection, which, of course, I missed — to Amsterdam, to catch a flight to Zurich with your partner, Swiss International Air, THEN to JFK on a Continental flight. Swiss Air found the luggage and you booked me out of Amsterdam the next week. In the end, Swiss Air’s customer service was fabulous, and helped me wade through the red tape of switching my Continental ticket*. There are way worse places to be stuck than Amsterdam, but it would’ve been nice to get a direct flight back then. Glad to see you’re stepping it up on the international front… Maybe soon you’ll be as good as Swiss Air?

    (*Note to boss: Remember that BlackBerry bill, Jeffrey? ;) )

  5. Actually, to paraphrase an old cliche, the answer to the question about whether or not it’s a good idea to trash-talk your competitors to try to make yourself look good is: that plane has already left the gate!

    Many years ago (and on a repeated basis), marketers were trying to determine the answer to the same question. Although they probably weren’t calling the process “metrics” yet, they did do their best to establish whether this tactic helped – or hurt – the company using it. What they discovered, over and over again, was that it inevitably HURT the company trashing their competitor. The best reason they could give to explain this phenomenon was that, when one company says that they’re good but others are bad, the audience tends to assume that, despite the advertiser’s claim to the contrary, ALL are bad! In other words, your saying that your competitor is bad is read by the audience as a shot against the whole industry, and (just to mix metaphors a little bit more) you inevitably end up tarred by the same brush.

    The unequivocal conclusion of the experts who studied this tactic and the results obtained: DON’T DO IT!!

  6. John,

    I agree with what you wrote. I’m just not convinced this ad is trash-talking. To me, it’s a statement of fact.

    For instance, the “Where’s the Beef?” ad for Wendy’s was very successful, and they called out Burger King and McDonalds by name.

    Should any direct reference to the competition to be considered trash-talking, or should an ad like this be considered trash-talking because of the imagery (i.e., its de facto comparison of an airline to a subway car)?

    I think Continental could have made their point in a different way. Are they over-the-line, or on the edge? When is it appropriate to evoke the competition? Who’s done so without appearing to be negative?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts… Interesting stuff, everyone!

  7. Somehow it has never sat well with me when one company mentions its competitors in an ad. First, it seems like the other company is getting a free ad for the name menton, and also, perhaps I wasn’t even thinking of the ‘other’ company before reading the ad…. but I am now!

  8. I’m not convinced by the study John mentioned.

    I think if you could trash talk anywhere, it would probably be in a New York subway.

    But ya, I don’t think it’s trash talking- it’s simply differentiation.

    And that’s a service to the prospect- life is overwhelming, make it clearer and simpler to me.

    I know many companies don’t want to risk their image by positioning themselves against their competitors, even in a sophisticated and courteous way, but it has always seemed strange to me that advertising that ignores competitors doesn’t admit the simple reality that your prospects know you have competitors…

    I’m an XNTJ, and enjoy arguing for the sake of the exchange of information, but some people can’t stand confrontation. So in big public ad efforts, you have to take that into account. But in niche-targeted advertising or specific locations like the subway, isn’t there room to experiment for that audience?

  9. Brian,

    Interesting comments. A couple of points, though:

    1. I didn’t quote the results of *one* study – but rather, the accumulated results (dare I say, the wisdom?) of many, many years of many people studying the issue. (As an aside, isn’t it interesting how often new people who aren’t aware of past history in a field tend to rediscover questions for which others have previously found answers that are still true – and entirely relevant? Think of all those “new marketers” in the late ’90′s, claiming that there was a “new paradygm” in marketing created by the emergence of the Internet … now, most of their companies have disappeared off the face of the Earth, and those “new marketers” are back at their primary job descriptions – flipping burgers at Macdonalds! It turned out that all the “old” marketing truths still prevail; the Internet is ‘just’ a new medium, but people remain people.)

    Even in a competitive industry, the long-since PROVEN truth is that it’s far better to talk UP the benefits of one’s own products or services than to demean someone else’s – although that’s NOT to say, it should be noted, that one shouldn’t *favorably* compare “ours” against “theirs” …

    2. Every marketer should always be consciously trying to avoid doing what I call “internalizing”, i.e. assuming that what they believe, or do, in a given situation is what a whole lot (perhaps even a majority) of their audience is believing or doing. Specifically, Brian, just because you happen to be an “XNTJ”, that emphatically does NOT mean that a great number of potential buyers out there are going share your proclaimed happiness when one company downplays another – or its products – in its own advertising.

    Just to make this absolutely clear: The time-proven method to “acknowledge” the competition is to say, “our product/service is better than theirs because …”, rather than “ABC Company’s product/service is terrible because …” If it wasn’t clear before, *that’s* what I meant by “trash-talking” the competition – something, I maintain, that one should never do …

  10. Hmmmm. I’m a great believer in positive messaging (talk about it quite a bit in one of my books, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, in fact), but in this case, I’m not convinced that this is actually trash-talking. Pointing out an area that a competitor doesn’t service is not mud slinging; its provable fact. United either does or doesn’t fly to Berlin.

    But what I wonder about is whether Continental is actually branding United, which is the dominant name in the ad.

  11. Shel,

    When you see five of those ads, side-by-side in a subway car, continental definitely wins the branding game. And keep in mind, it’s on the only train (the A line) that takes people to any NYC airport (JFK).

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Jeffrey Eisenberg, founder of FutureNow, is a professional marketing speaker and the co-author of New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling books Call to Action and Waiting For Your Cat to Bark. You can friend him on Facebook.

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