There’s a shaky truce among advertisers to resist sucker punching the competition. No matter if you’re looking to increase a client’s market share or demonstrate product superiority, the moment names are named, you enter a whole new arena. After all, the communicative risks are much higher when you’re the aggressor. Could you come off as a schoolyard bully? Will your message inform or will it belittle? Is it cheeky and playful, or rude and mean-spirited? Whatever your intent, the moment you “call out” a competitor by name, all eyes are on you. Cuz them’s fightin’ words.
Frankly, from outside the industry, it’s fun to cheer on faceless companies as they duke it out in public. This is America, buddy. The only thing we love more than entertainment is competition. A good old- fashioned scuffle might have been limited to intended audiences a decade or two ago, but now, the entire Internet takes notice. Lucky us!
Most recently, Taco Bell has been taking jabs at its competitive juggernaut, McDonald’s. To highlight a foray into the fast-food breakfast market, Taco Bell released a nationwide ad campaign showing people named Ronald McDonald enjoying the new Taco Bell breakfast. It isn’t a particularly biting ad, but Taco Bell was certainly wearing its intentions on its sleeves.
To retaliate, McDonald’s simply posted this picture on Twitter.
Have you ever had an encounter with a Chihuahua? They’re not typically the most timid pups. In fact, they’re known for a particularly yippy demeanor, and if you challenge them, they’ll bark and nip at your heals for hours.
That’s exactly how Taco Bell responded. Its next ad used the theme of “Old McDonald Had a Farm” to imply that McDonald’s breakfasts are behind the times. The exchange has now been dubbed “The Breakfast Wars” by online publications, and the Internet waits with bated breath for a McDonald’s retaliation.
As agency insiders, we cringe at the slightest possibility of a mishap when the gloves come off. Take Audi’s “Your Move, BMW” billboard. In launching its message of superiority, the folks at Audi were counting on limited billboard availability and a small, specific audience to minimize the risk of retaliation. Or so they thought. What they didn’t count on was the people at BMW taking notice.
When you make the first move in an attack ad, you leave yourself open to a riposte. In this case, Audi gave the clever agency behind BMW an opportunity to fire back twice as hard, making Audi look quite foolish in the process.
So how do you walk the fine line between launching an offense while fortifying a defense? That’s where the Joe Fraziers of advertising step in.
Remember Apple’s “I’m a Mac” campaign?
These advertisements brilliantly tight-roped that line by mixing polite positivity, cheerful music and comedy all around the basic differences between Macs and PCs. Apple didn’t pull its punches (until later), but it didn’t back down from its message either. How could Microsoft respond heavy-handedly to light-hearted comedy and deductive intelligence? It couldn’t. Not successfully, anyway.
The campaign ran its course, with each new TV spot guaranteed to elicit a new giggle and a “hmm” from the audience. And that’s what a successful attack ad should do. Even ad wars have casualties, so when the fightin’ words start flying, it’s important to respond with calculated messaging and a side of wit instead of sucker punching.
Unless you have one hell of an uppercut.