As the calendar has flipped into 2019, consumers have been hit with a couple of high profile advertisements from companies aiming to directly target the shortcomings of their competitors. While this phenomenon is certainly nothing new in our industry, today’s social media culture leads to increased eyeballs, discussions, and criticisms. And while these ads have been borderline viral, maybe there is a case to be made that this type of differentiation can be done better.

Direct attacks on competitors in advertising yield major buzz

To shed light on three major recent examples of the direct attack tactic we can start with this year’s Super Bowl. It is a great case study, because to be honest, some of that audience is driven by those who are only there for the advertisements (I count myself in this group.) Sure, there were great ads for cars and Doritos (as always,) but this year the stage was stolen by a Bud Light ad targeting the use of corn syrup by its two major competitors, Miller Lite and Coors Light.

Without rehashing the ad entirely, Bud Light was proclaiming that their beer is much better because it isn’t brewed with corn syrup. This was demonstrated by a medieval kingdom group of Bud Light drinkers lugging around a huge barrel of corn syrup to the Miller and Coors castles. This ad drew some laughs at the time, and some extremely serious backlash from the National Corn Growers Association the day after. As they say, “no press is bad press,” and this ad had a ton of people talking. Does anybody actually care that their beer is brewed with corn syrup? I don’t know, but I do know that it led to a lot of people questioning the quality of Miller and Coors. Despite the backlash, it is tough to call this anything but a success.  

Another example of this approach came from the world of big-time NCAA basketball. Sketchers ran an ad directly targeting Nike after a much-publicized shoe explosion that led to the best player in college basketball, Duke’s Zion Williamson, to injure his knee in the first minute of a rivalry game. The ad’s copy stated “Just Blew It- We won’t split on you” with a picture of a blown-out basketball shoe. While this ad also drew a bit of publicity, I would say that it wasn’t overly effective for a couple of reasons. For starters, most people probably didn’t even realize that Skechers makes basketball shoes, while Nike is basically the undisputed king of hoops. In fact, the brand isn’t worn on the court by a single NBA or NCAA player. Also, we can be so sure that Zion Williamson wouldn’t actually blow up a pair of Sketchers either, or that 99.9% of the population would have the same issue. It is hard to say without being 6’9, 285 lbs, with a 40-inch vertical leap.  For these reasons, unlike the Bud Light ad, I don’t think very many people actually stopped to consider if they should ditch their Nike LeBron’s for a pair of whatever Sketchers calls their basketball shoes.

Sketchers Ad

Photo: The Oregonian/OregonLive

Our final example of an attack ad actually came from one company making fun of the marketing campaign of another. Who could forget when IHOP changed its name to IHOb, sending the fast food burger chains into a frenzy. The most memorable of these was Wendy’s, who fired off a series of relentless social media burns, roasting the “competition.” Although IHOP eventually admitted that IHOb was a publicity stunt, it is still up for debate whether or not this was considered an advertising success. On one hand, it did get a lot of press. On the other, unfortunately for the International House of Pancakes/Burgers, was that Wendy’s was the clear winner of this stunt. By capitalizing on their strengths, paired with IHOP’s weaknesses, Wendy’s found a way to humorously shed light on both. With a line like “Can’t wait to try a burger from the place that decided pancakes were too hard,” how can we not crown Wendy’s the ultimate winner? In today’s social age, companies need to consider how successful a response advertisement can be.

A “nicer” way to differentiate your brand

So sometimes these ads actually do harm the competition, and other times seem like a desperate plea for attention. But maybe there is another way to advertise against your competition without being so direct about it. To illustrate this, we can turn to a couple of long-standing food giants. One of my personal favorites, M&M’s, led customers to question their competition by rolling out the tagline “Melts in your mouth, not your hand.” This seems like a subtle way to suggest that most other candies will melt right there in your hand. Can this be proven? Not so much, but it definitely has been an effective way for M&M’s to differentiate themselves from their candy competitors. Count me in for a line that is short, catchy, and illustrative. Also, it is very hard for me to prove this to false, as I pretty much immediately transfer the little guys from the bag to my mouth (especially if they are the peanut kind.)


Another similar example can be found when studying Folgers coffee. In case you haven’t been paying attention to your beans, the company was the first to come out with the phrase “Mountain-Grown.” Sounds special right? I don’t know why, but I definitely want my beans to be grown in the mountains, and not at sea level. Seems like Folgers is the right joe for me. Is it true that Folgers coffee is mountain grown? You bet. Do you know what else? Almost (if not all) coffee is grown on mountains. Folgers simply beat their competition to this differentiating tagline, but it works wonders. It would look pretty silly if Maxwell House just started touting themselves as “mountain-grown”. Folgers even has this tagline trademarked, so their competitors are out of luck. In my opinion, this is a great example of how to do an under-the-radar competitive advertisement.

It is fair to say that companies have been finding ways to target their competitors for as long as advertising has been around. One option is to be extremely direct, such as Bud Light attacking corn syrup, or Sketchers showing shoe carnage. These ads surely can draw attention, but they can also have a backlash, such as the case with the corn farming community or IHOb. Companies also have the option to be quite a bit subtler, such as M&Ms or Folgers. While they likely didn’t have the immediate buzz as a huge Super Bowl spot, the taglines that are still used today quietly differentiate these two companies from their competition.