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Carroll: In Tough Times, Ads Resort To Fighting Words

As the U.S. economy continues to flounder, companies have increasingly looked for an edge in the shrinking marketplace. WBUR senior media analyst John Carroll says the struggle is written all over current advertising campaigns.

Consumer-goods advertising has traditionally focused on brand-building, a fancy name for promoting an inflated image of the marketer's product. But what the industry likes to call Brand DNA has lately turned into Brand TNT — blowing the competition's product to smithereens.

Blame all the ad-gression on the current economic slump.

"Fluffy advertising is gone," one marketing analyst told Brandweek magazine. "These are tough times and what managers want to hear is: 'Show me how I can take business from my competitor.'"

There is, not surprisingly, a range of ways to do that. On the gentler side, you have the velvet glove approach, like Macintosh computers kicking Microsoft's boot-up.

Hello, I'm a Mac...

But that campaign is just a slapfight compared with the donnybrooks that have broken out in other product categories. Burger King, for instance, is deep-frying both Wendy's and McDonald's in the fast food industry. Then there's the coffee-cuffing Dunkin' Donuts is currently administering to the struggling Starbucks chain.

The Massachusetts-based doughnut company is touting a double-blind taste test in which it claims to have trounced the Seattle-based chain 54% to 39% in consumer preference. One spot features a gal wearing a lab coat and carrying a clipboard as she quizzes working people.

Can you tell me which coffee tastes better...

A Starbucks spokeswoman told the hometown Seattle Post-Intelligencer it's no surprise Starbucks is a target since "we more or less introduced the coffee culture to the U.S."

Fuggedaboutit, a Dunkin' Donuts exec responded. "Our consumer profile is very strong. It is hardworking Americans who are busy people. They don't have time to hang around."

Yeah, take that all you Venti-loving Wi-Fi-loitering Starbucks layabouts.

Even hotter is the soup smackdown between Campbell's and Progresso, each of which has accused the other of marketing MSG in a can. Campbell's kicked it off with a newspaper ad headlined, "How do you like your chicken noodle: With MSG?"-- referring to a can of Progresso soup — "Or without?" — over a can of Campbell's.

A companion TV spot featured a literal blind taste test: A blindfolded woman first sampled Progresso soup, then Campbell's.

Describe the two soups, please...

Progresso countered with a newspaper ad headlined, "Campbell's has 95 soups made with MSG. Progresso has 26 delicious soups with no MSG. (And more to come.)"

From there, it became the comfort-food equivalent of the Shaheen-Sununu New Hampshire Senate dustup — after awhile, you don't want anything to do with either one of them.

And that's the problem with the Brand TNT approach. Sooner or later, it tends to blow up in your face.

John Carroll is senior media analyst for WBUR and a mass communication professor at Boston University.

This program aired on November 24, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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