Ambush Marketing – Is it Effective?

Published by MBA Skool Team, Published on January 21, 2014

HUL raised a storm when it released an advertisement in which it claimed that Pepsodent was 130% effective against germs as compared to Colgate (both brand names were clearly visible), which was only 100% effective. HUL is not new to controversy in the advertising world. In 2008, it had raised eyebrows when it claimed that Rin was superior to Tide. Comparative marketing is against competition laws in India. While the Rin ad was immediately banned in 2008, HUL made sure the Pepsodent advertisement stayed on a little longer – it released the ad over an extended weekend period, leaving Colgate with little opportunity to block the ad through the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). However, when Colgate did finally take the matter to the court, the court ruled that brands had the right to show the public the true picture and effectiveness of their products and hence the ad could not be banned. While the effectiveness of Pepsodent is heavily debated now, more interesting is the effectiveness of ambush marketing. Is this a healthy culture in marketing or does it need to be curbed? More importantly, do these help the customer make an informed decision?

Ambush marketing can be of two types – direct comparative advertising like the cases above, or it can be indirect and subtle. The 2012 Olympics was a happening playing ground of the latter, where many brands ‘ambushed’ their peer companies. For example, Beats electronics distributed free headphones to swimmers. The result? International TV exposure and appreciative Tweets from several well-followed athletes, all without the hefty price tag of a sponsorship. Panasonic, the official sponsor went unnoticed by many, but beats caught everyone’s attention.

Another example from the same period was Nike, which showed many people jumping, running and diving alongside the word ‘London’, but made sure that the filming was done in the city’s namesakes in the US, Norway, Nigeria and Jamaica. So, while Adidas was the sponsor of the Olympics, Nike managed to catch the attention of quite a few people as well. The fact that a company as big as Nike concentrates on ambush marketing shows that it is deemed very important by companies.

While the examples from the Olympics were clever, direct ambushing is often aggressive, as in the case of the famed Cola wars where the ads clearly show superiority to the competitor. In India, Sprite led this battle against Pepsi, releasing various advertisements ridiculing Pepsi ‘Youngistan’ campaign and even calling Pepsi ‘Puppy’. While Pepsi struck back, branding Sprite as ‘Fright’, Sprite had already caught the mass’ attention. A new brand (not many of the public knew that it was a Coca Cola product) directly taking on a huge soft drink like Pepsi was a treat for everyone’s eyes. Sprite also used the comparative ads to position itself, and achieved the number one position in India toppling Thums Up (something Pepsi and Coke couldn’t do). For Sprite, ambush marketing worked wonders.

It can be argued that comparative ads and ambush marketing will destabilize the market, and lead to less competition and thereby monopoly or oligopoly. When two brands are allowed to compare each other, they mostly focus on the weakness of the competitor rather than their own strengths, leaving the consumer all the more confused. The Pepsi vs coke ads are perfect examples of this. In the US, where comparative advertising is legal, one can find dozens of ads in which these cola makers criticize each other. The consumer is given no extra information; the maximum that these ads do is put a smile on the watcher’s face. These ads serve no purpose and do not impact the consumer purchase behaviour.

However, the ads in the automobile segment, especially the BMW – Audi wars are both engrossing and enlightening. While cutthroat competition is what defines their relationship, their ads are informative to the customer, usually revealing the features of their products and the competitor’s. This helps the consumer make an informed decision, instead of merely trying to create bias in the consumer’s mind. And, it also enables creativity in the ads.

Hence, the very concept of ambush marketing, aggressive or otherwise, is effective and healthy, what matters is the way in which it is employed. In the case of HUL, as the court ruled, it was a clear case in which HUL brought out the advantages of using Pepsodent over Colgate. Such an ad is informative, healthily competitive and useful to the consumer.

This article has been authored by Manoj N from IIM Ranchi

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