From the March 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

Should I go negative?" That's the question that might occasionally buzz around in your head as you wonder about taking a whack at your major competitor in your advertising. You've got the proverbial little red devil on one shoulder urging you to "Go ahead, do it!" and the little white angel on the other side cautioning against it.

This kind of thinking happens when you're convinced your product or service is superior to your competitor's, or equal to theirs but less costly, yet is not as successful. You figure that using your ads to point out their negatives compared to your positives could turn some heads and bring more customers in the door.

I say, go for it . . . not specifically as a devil or angel, but more as a devilish angel. By that I mean no bare knuckles, brass knuckles or knees to the groin like some of the political ads in last year's campaigns.

Rather, give your rival a little kick in the shins with a smile on your face that still makes the point. The purpose is to convince the public that it's somehow getting shafted by your competitors and that your outfit has the real deal.

That's my message to Charles Wittish, a New York City entrepreneur and founder of Direct Casket. Just as the goosebump-inducing name implies, Direct Casket will sell you a direct-from-the-manufacturer casket instead of your having to pay the expected markup when buying through a funeral home. The difference in price is substantial, says Wittish. A casket that the funeral home normally sells at "retail" for $2,000 can be purchased from Direct Casket for $800 to $900. And if you pre-plan--which means placing your order before the need arises and having your casket stored free of charge by the company--you can save even more.

So how should Wittish portray the funeral home industry and take it on in his advertising? I'd paint it as the big, bad Goliath that would like to do in a righteous little outfit like Direct Casket.

David vs. Goliath

It would be fair to say that the funeral home industry has been the occasional subject of scrutiny over the last two decades, particularly in the pricing policies of some of its practitioners and because of a reputation for exploiting the bereaved when they are most vulnerable to a sales pitch for high-ticket services.

It must also be said that the lucrativeness of this business has always been acknowledged, a fact that no doubt gave rise to the old saying "There's no such thing as a poor undertaker." So the industry is an especially easy target for a casket maker who comes along with a big-savings story and an aggressive direct-to-the-public campaign. Moreover, you can bet such a gambit is going to draw a whole heap of attention, not to mention ire, from the funeral home industry.

Given this scenario, Wittish has pieced together a pretty hard-hitting direct-response-oriented ad, with an eye-opening telephone number as the headline (1-800-77-CASKET) that would surely grab a reader's attention.

My only concern is that it treats the subject--caskets--a little too much as if they're a commodity we're all comfortable with, like a mattress and box spring. But this is the slumber none of us looks forward to, so I think we're all rather squeamish about the word. That's why being hit between the eyes with that phone number at the top of an ad may be a little off-putting for most people.

My suggestion is to change the personality of the ad to get the reader to take sides with Direct Casket, and then ask for the order. So I recommend a punningly negative headline that reads "Why Funeral Homes Want to Bury Us." Then a big subhead would say "With Direct Casket, you pay a full 50 to 70 percent less than what funeral homes charge for caskets." This is followed by body copy that starts out "While none of us likes to think about the inevitable, when that time does arrive for you or a loved one, it's nice to know that family members won't have to endure high-pressure sales tactics or higher-than-necessary prices." The copy then reads much the same way as the original ad. You'll notice, too, that I've softened the retail look of the ad to make the subject matter more palatable. These additions should enhance the appeal of the ad and the reader's comfort level with the subject.

Charting Your Advantages

Let's say you don't have the stomach for blatant negativity, yet you still want to somehow duke it out with your competitor because you feel you'll come out ahead in the prospect's mind. In that case, a comparison chart is a great way to go. By that I mean an "us" vs. "them" chart in which you show how each of you compares in a number of categories important to your prospects. I don't know about you, but as a consumer, I'm always drawn to such charts because they're a quick way to cut to the chase, get the relevant facts, make a fast comparison, and get justification for your buying decision.

Setting up such a chart is easy, and you can probably visualize it because you've seen it a million times. Start by creating three vertical columns side by side. Down the first column, list the areas of comparison you want to contrast (for example, price, material, length of guarantee and so on). Then, to the right of each category, in columns two and three, make the comparisons for "us" and "them," being sure to put your name above column two and theirs above column three. If you offer a number of benefits that your rival doesn't (say, free pickup and delivery, 24-hour ordering or 30-day terms), the fasBODY way to communicate that difference is with yes and no answers, but other one- or two-word descriptions will work as well.

Obviously, you want to compare those areas in which you come out ahead. But equally powerful can be a chart that shows how both of you are equal in the benefits you offer, yet when it comes down to price, your item costs 40 percent less. In that case, you may want to boldface and capitalize the price information on the chart.

A comparison chart can be used as a sidebar within an ad or as the main emphasis with a headline that invites the reader to "Compare How Williams' Rubber Baby Buggy Bumpers Beat Fisher's Rubber Baby Buggy Bumpers In 5 Critical Ways." Another way to dramatize such comparisons is to offer them as the focus of a lead-generating free report that prospects can order by calling your toll-free number.

However you decide to take on your rivals, keep one thing in mind: It needs to be a legitimate and credible comparison that engenders positive feelings about your company, rather than the perception that you are gratuitously bashing a competitor who's outsmarting and outmarketing you.

Contact Sources

Direct Caskets, 14531 Hamlin St., Van Nuys, CA 91411, (800) 77-CASKET, (818) 374-5861.

Jerry Fisher is a freelance advertising copywriter. If you'd like him to consider your materials for a makeover, send them to the address below. For information on his new manual, Creating Successful Small Business Advertising, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to "Advertising Workshop," Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614, or contact Jerry via Compuserve at 73150,132 or America Online at Jerry228@aol.com.