They're turning on themselves! -

They’re turning on themselves!


The car manufacturers, silly. Who did you think I was referring to? Check out this billboard I saw in Toronto yesterday:

I’m not much of a car guy, and it never occurred to me that the Chevy Malibu is in the same category as a Honda Accord (to me, the Accord says “successful bureaucrat”, while the Malibu says “airport rental”). This isn’t exactly an attack ad, it’s more of a contrastive spot.  But most contrastive car ads (indeed, most contrastive ads in the consumer marketplace in general) refer to “the other leading brand” or somesuch, which is why it is interesting to see one car company going directly after another company’s model.

Unlike politics, negative campaigning is relatively uncommon in the shopping mall. There are lots of possible explanations for this, but I think one major reason is that because the size of the stakes in the political marketplace is fixed (there is a fixed amount of power to go around), politics is a zero sum game. The consumer market, on the other hand, can grow, and one company’s success does not necessarily come at the expense of a competitor (think of what Starbucks did for the coffee market, or Red Bull for energy drinks). Attack ads in these markets risk turning customers off the entire category.

Which might help explain why car companies are now going after one another: The market is not growing nearly as fast as it needs to for all to thrive, it is something like a zero-sum market now. So Chevy is going after Honda, Chevy goes after Ford, and everyone is going after Toyota.

I’m all for duking it out over brand identies. But if were in the car biz, I’d be really wary about going after another company over recalls and other safety issues. Recalls, after all, are as American as the 5000-calorie bacon burger, and what goes around will assuredly come around. Besides, it is increasingly obvious that there is nothing particularly wrong with Toyota’s cars. I doubt Toyota will forget how they’ve been hung out to dry by the industry.

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They’re turning on themselves!

  1. Well, first of all the Malibu has really come into its own and is an excellent car in the 'boring but inoffensive sedan' category with the Accord. Not sure what 'successful bureaucrats' drive Accords. I've always found the Accord to symbolize the 'it works and I can't be bothered to spend a year researching cars' car.

    I have always wondered why there aren't more attack ads in the corporate world if they purportedly work so well. I'd disagree that politics is zero-sum, and I think that's the problem. Everyone is fighting trying to take votes away from the other guy when there is a growing pool of voters who don't vote for anyone. Perhaps parties should take a lesson from the car makers and go after them.

  2. When Burger King took on McDonald's or Pepsi took on Coke, I always thought…gee, they said Coke more.

    So Ignatieff says "Harper, Harper, Harper, Harper but vote Liberal" He should hope that I was actually listening to the message and not just the words.

  3. I loved the angle taken by the movie "The Invention of Lying". A bus ad which read: "Pepsi: For When They're Out Of Coke."

  4. Don't know this for a fact, but I bet the Verizon attack on AT&T has been hugely successful (map comparing AT&T's 3g coverage to Verizon).

    I think the reason that this isn't done very well in the corporate world is because most products aren't that differentiated – at least, not in a way that can be successfully advertised.

    The other reason that usually there a host of competitors – in politics, usually just one (maybe two). It's tought to have a simple message that says "BMW is better than Mercedes, Jaguar, Audi and Lexus because X, Y, Z, etc).

  5. That last point is definitely a key factor. It doesn't help for Pepsi to dump all over Coke if the customer just goes over to RC Cola. Also John D, my point about the zero-sum nature of politics isn't about voter turnout, it was about the ultimate spoils of politics, which is power. Unlike the market for coffee, which is much bigger in Canada than it was a decade ago, the market for political power in Canada is fixed at the same size as it was in 1867.

    • Dont forget those ads which attack tampon absorbancy!

    • Re: zero sum:

      It's only that way because of the way we elect our representatives. Our current system concentrates power in a minority who are institutionally encouraged to look out for the narrow interests of their voter base, rather than broader society. If we were to adopt a system that drew more people into the political process – i.e. preferential ballots – it wouldn't be zero sum anymore.

      I'm not suggesting that you're saying otherwise in regards to Canada in it's current situation; I'm just saying that there are other (and I would argue, better) ways to do things.

  6. Anybody involved in sales and marketing knows the risks of negative ads like this. Mentioning all of your competitors in any context may just give the customer information they didn't have. Good marketing will position a product within the industry, so comparisons to the competition are often useful, but consumers can be easily turned off by mud-slinging. They want to know why they should buy your product, not why they shouldn't buy someone else's.

    I believe this to be true for politics as well, but sometimes the political hacks, like deranged senior executives, overrule the sales and marketing professionals, and the results look something like that Malibu advertisement, which is pretty unpersuasive.

  7. Andrew, all the chips are on the table. GM is going with a full-out advertising blitz because they perceive (mostly accurately) that the sedan market is so saturated, and the perch of the Accord and Camry so unassailable, that a contrastive approach is the only option they have left.

    It's either this third rail of advertising works, or more taxpayer money.

  8. By definition, Malibu is a beach!

    • Ha!

  9. "…it never occurred to me that the Chevy Malibu is in the same category as a Honda Accord…"

    Yup. And I think that's exactly the point of the ad.

    You gotta credit GM: reviews of the Malibu have been so favourable that I shortlisted it against the Accord and the Hyundai Sonata. (Funny story: my kids didn't fit in any of them!)