It would not be difficult for you to recall the aggressively competitive duos in the field of advertising such as, Coca-Cola – Pepsi; Pepsodent – Colgate; Mountain Dew – Sprite and Horlicks - Complan, in the late 1990s and early 2000. While they hated each other to the extent of humiliating their competitor’s brand ambassador, we quite enjoyed their warring ads.
It was entertaining to analyse the tug of war while sitting back and sipping coffee. After every ad war, a period of comfortable calmness would follow only to return with a subtle contempt for competitors during mega events such as the cricket world cup or the screening of Bollywood blockbuster films.
Competitive Advertising is Omnipresent
Post the Cola war phase in the late 1990s, many leading marketers have gone on record to assert that there is nothing wrong in naming competing brands in an advertisement, whether overtly or discreetly. In short, they believe that competitive advertising is good for promoting healthy competition. This holds true especially in the FMCG sector.
While in the last three years we have not seen many instances of murky mudslinging, this trend is gradually manifesting itself in the social and digital media domain, though in its own subtle ways.
The latest case in point is the ad war between the two leading English dailies of India – Kastoori & Son’s The Hindu and Bennett, Coleman & Co’s The Times of India - which became a major topic of discussion in the media and advertising industry. While The Hindu claimed that it is ‘ahead of the Times’ and that ‘government malfunction matters more than wardrobe malfunction’, the TOI retorted, ‘Stuck with news that puts you to sleep?’. Besides television, both the media brands chose social media as the platform to get back at each other.
Invariably the campaigns snowballed into visible discussions. And as users often take an extremist and rather overt position on social media, public outcry came free for the warring brands. The ads went viral on social media, creating over 1 lakh views for each. Similarly the recent Colgate-Pepsodent ad war also went viral on social networks as people circulated jokes on whose breath smells better and why. While Colgate claimed that it provides 100% germ protection, Pepsodent went a notch higher to assure 130% germ protection.
But on Social Media?
In both the above examples, Google’s video giant, YouTube, played a crucial role, apart from Facebook and Twitter's debate on the morality of advertising standards. A similar practice was seen in the Horlicks-Complan ad war in mid-2000, in which both claimed, almost scientifically, the superiority of their protein-mineral rich maltose powder. The natural question that comes to mind is whether social media needs to be monitored separately because it attracts widespread commentary and debates, and whether there should be a clearly stated policy to regulate social and digital media ads, as in television and print media. The rule book suggests that there is no immediate need to do so.
The regulators – Competition Commission and the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) are up in arms for about two years now to track online advertisements. In August this year, the Advertising Standard Council of India upheld complaints against three online ads and one YouTube ad for the first time. Emami Fair and Handsome cream, in its online ad, showed a flow chart that depicted problems that dark skinned people face. While it cannot be denied that the number of such instances has decreased substantially in the last five to seven years, is also true that the sensitivity has gone up.
Yet, the ASCI, at several instances iterated that digital advertisements will have to be scrutinized more often, considering the viral and interactive nature of the medium.
Until Monitoring Strengthens
The digital competitors have clearly exploited the loopholes of these rules to a large extent. Almost all e-commerce web portals and travel sites of India have gently compared their service- faster, cheaper, better and of course, the best.
Globally, there are innumerable cases of strongly comparative advertising on social media including some leading brands. But this trend is yet to become rampant among Indian advertisers.
Technicalities suggest that there is a thin line between comparative and competitive advertising. While competitive ads are overtly defaming, comparative advertisements are subtle and indirect. Today, comparison is at the root of modern advertising. However, if one has to go by the Advertising Standards Council of India's rule book, both are unfair. Surprisingly, according to the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act (the law which regulates unfair advertising practices), there is enormous room for both competitive and comparative advertising in India across all media platforms.
The rule clearly states that an advertisement can declare that the advertised goods are the best in the world, even though this declaration is untrue. An advertisement can state that the advertised goods are better than those of its competitors, even if this statement is untrue. It cannot however state that the competitor’s products are bad.
To conclude, legally, it is fair to lie, mislead and exaggerate. Else it would make advertising dull and boring. But it is unfair to defame or insult another brand and its image. As brands inevitably take the social media route, their pungent advertisements will follow suit and would naturally raise alarms for users, media owners and lawmakers to ask – how do we control this?