Of ad blitz & lawsuit glitz rocking US marketplace

Dusting up


Longtime foes like Pantene and Dove, Science Diet and Iams, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, and Campbell Soup and Progresso have all wrestled over ads recently. The goal is usually not money but market share. Companies file complaints to get competitors’ ads withdrawn or amended.

The cases themselves might seem a little absurd — an argument over hyped-up advertising copy that not many consumers even take at face value. Pantene has attacked Dove’s claim that its conditioner ‘repairs’ hair better, and Iams has been challenged on one of its lines, “No other dog food stacks up like Iams.”

Dueling advertisers, however, argue that these claims can mislead consumers and cause a pronounced drop in sales. Since advertisers are required by law to have a reasonable factual basis for their commercials, their competitors are essentially demanding that they show their hand.

The number of complaints over ads from competitors filed with the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the industry’s main self-regulatory programme for national ads, is on track to set a record this year. There have been 82 formal complaints so far in 2009, after last year’s record of 84 challenges, a sharp increase from 62 in 2007 and 52 in 2006.

False advertising

Other companies file false-advertising lawsuits under the Lanham Act, passed in 1946 to strengthen trademark law. While there are no reliable tracking numbers on cases filed under that law, lawyers say they are seeing an increase.

Linda A Goldstein, a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, who represents clients in advertising disputes, said such disputes had become part of a ‘war game’ for marketers.

This month, in one of the more hotly contested parts of the economy — cellphones — AT&T sued Verizon Wireless over, literally, white space. In October, Verizon began comparing its third-generation wireless network to AT&T’s in television commercials called ‘There’s a Map for That’. AT&T isn’t challenging the crux of the ad, which is that Verizon has more thorough wireless 3G coverage than AT&T. Rather, it is upset over a chart of two maps comparing the companies’ networks.

“There are vast spaces of white in the map that depicts AT&T’s coverage, and the complaint centres on those white spaces,” said Mark Siegel, a spokesman for AT&T. “It suggests to the viewer that not only is there no 3G coverage in that area, but there is no coverage at all.” Although there is text on the graphic indicating that it compares just 3G networks,  Siegel said that was not enough.

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