Tuesday, December 22, 2009

For Some, 'Taste Test' Ads Are Leaving a Bad Taste

Jan 10, 2009

Marketers aren’t just bashing their rivals on TV, they’re attacking them behind the scenes in the industry’s self-policing unit, the National Advertising Division.

Disputed claims rose 40 percent in 2008 compared to the prior year. Those included a case in which NAD recommended General Mills yank claims that its Yoplait Yo-Plus has been proven to “regulate digestive health.” This came after Dannon, marketer of Activia yogurt, demurred. Another change came after Cablevision complained about Verizon’s claims that its FIOS service was “20x faster than cable.” Gerber, meanwhile, asked NAD to look into Beech-Nut’s claim that some of its products increase an infant’s attentiveness. NAD recommended Beech-Nut retract the claim.

“The statistics show a more competitive atmosphere,” said Lee Peeler, president/CEO of the National Advertising Review Council, the agency that sets policies for NAD. “Our speculation is when the economy’s not growing that market share is more important than it ever was. Advertisers are being more adventurous and more sensitive to advertising claims.” About 95 percent of such complaints are settled by the NAD. Others are directed to the Federal Trade Commission.

The increase came as comparison ads seemed to jump as well. The past few months have seen a volley of advertising matchups including: Dunkin’ Donuts v. Starbucks, Campbell’s Prego spaghetti sauce brand v. Heinz’s Classico, Burger King v. McDonald’s and Domino’s v. Subway. In all those ads, the challenger has claimed a victory in taste tests over its rival.

While it is unclear whether NAD is hearing claims related to any of those campaigns (the organization’s policy is that all such claims are anonymous until settled), Jeff Moody, CEO of the Subway Franchisee Advertising Trust, told Brandweek, ”We believe the Domino’s ads are misleading and that the research was not done in a way that is either valid nor representative of what real consumers experience.” Among his charges was the fact that Domino’s cherry-picked its test sandwiches for its advertised taste test, so that Domino’s compared its Philly Cheese Steak sandwich to Subway’s Steak and Cheese, rather than its own Philly Cheese Steak sandwich. “Philly Cheesesteak uses a shaved beef product which is completely different than our Steak and Cheese product so their comparison is invalid,” he said.

Russell Weiner, CMO of Domino’s, said the fact that the ads are running is proof that they hold up to scrutiny.  “The networks will not put you on the air unless you can provide legal substantiation that everything you did is on the up and up. We are on every network out there,” he said, adding that he thinks Subway is rattled by the ads. “If Subway came out with a pizza that beat us two-to-one, I’d be scared. That means it works. Our sandwich sales are doing very well.”

Analysts said such back-and-forth is symptomatic of a down economy. “In difficult times, marketers often want to cut to a harder, more direct sell and not rely on a softer image-building approach,” said Allen Adamson, managing director of Landor Associates, New York. “It’s a natural tendency.” Donald Sexton, professor of marketing at Columbia University, agreed. “When times change, you have to change your approach. There was a period where emotional benefits were more salient, but maybe emotion alone doesn’t do it anymore and you have to back it up with proof.”

That, however, doesn’t mean that comparison ads are 100 percent effective. Adamson said the approach is “not necessarily the best way to market a product” for various reasons. One is consumer skepticism—viewers of such ads tend to conclude that a test is rigged somehow to show a positive result. Another is confusion in the marketplace; consumers can forget who is making the initial claim. “Consumers can’t figure out who said what to whom and end up tuning out the whole category,” Adamson said.

Nevertheless, comparison ads seem to be used consistently, regardless of the economy. “These things go in cycles,” said Derek Rucker, an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Rucker pointed out that Miller Lite had initiated taste tests against Bud Light in 2005, well before the economy went sour.

Campbell rep John Faulkner said his company’s new ads for Prego weren’t driven by the economy. The spots, which broke in December, note that the sauce beat its rival in a blind taste test. “Comparative advertising is a tactic that has been utilized across many categories,” Faulkner said. “Consumers are making a comparison when they get to the store shelf. We believe our ads will help motivate consumers to purchase our brands.”   

—with Elaine Wong