Do Marketing Counterstrikes Work?

It's tempting to answer a competitor's ad campaign, but stick to what makes you unique.
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the February 2009 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

It's hard not to laugh at Apple Inc.'s "I'm a Mac" ad campaign, which pits the cool, trendy Mac guy against the conservative, nerdy PC guy.

These ads have amused everyone except Microsoft, which held its fire as Apple took light but repeated potshots at its expense. Microsoft eventually had no choice but to respond to its smaller rival. Last fall, the computer giant struck back with its "I'm a PC" campaign, featuring celebrities like actress Eva Longoria and singer Pharrell Williams.

"Apple started not only defining Apple, but also what the PC is about," says Ron Shachar, a marketing professor at Duke University who studies negative advertising. "There is a point at which the smaller company's effectiveness becomes so large that it defines the giant, and in a sense, that's exactly what happened."

Some companies are using negative ads to break through, but it tends to work best when there are two major competitors in a market in which smaller competitors can't benefit from flying below the radar. Shachar thinks small companies are still better off touting their unique qualities around work force, product, concept and management.

"They will benefit more by putting themselves out there and demonstrating to the consumers their uniqueness and personality than actually trashing the other guy," Shachar says. Apple might beg to differ: It now represents nearly 10 percent of all U.S. computer sales, compared to 8.1 percent in 2007.

Who Got Burned?

Here's a glance at three companies (and one presidential candidate supporter) that went negative on their main competitors.

Pepsi vs. Coke: Taste test, anyone? Pepsi, with its smaller market share, has traditionally been the advertising aggressor. In one Pepsi spot, two delivery guys from Coke and Pepsi are sitting next to each other in a diner. They switch drinks, the Coke guy doesn't want to relinquish his Pepsi and a fight ensues. Still, Coca-Cola is enjoying stronger sales and doesn't seem to be itching for a fight right now.

View it here:

Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton: An Obama campaign supporter remade Apple's "1984" commercial using Hillary Clinton as Big Brother and effectively branding her as the establishment. "It helped Obama's campaign frame 'change' vs. 'more of the same,'" says Duke University marketing professor Ron Shachar. "It was hard for her to respond to that."

View it here:

Alltel vs. Cingular, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon: The Alltel guy is bighearted compared with his cynical, scheming rivals. Alltel's "my circle" spot features the company's four rivals having lunch in a mall food court and discussing how to respond to Alltel's new wireless plan. When the Cingular guy says they need to put a stop to it, the Sprint guy responds, "I got the carne asada. It's awesome."

View it here:

eHarmony vs. In one spot, a woman ponders why eHarmony would have rejected her: "I am a good person, right?" she asks. The narrator says eHarmony has rejected more than 1 million people and tells viewers to "come as you are" and receive five free matches. eHarmony hasn't responded directly to its upstart rival.

View it here:

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