Recently, commercial aerospace giants Airbus and Boeing exchanged a volley of ads aimed directly at each other. Unusual, because in the tech-happy commercial aircraft industry, aircraft specs and performance data typically speak for themselves. Subjective attributes like “tastes great” or “more filling” – and consumer-style potshots at competitors – not so much. And rightfully so. Even stoic airline executives are known to enthusiastically respond to performance improvements, even modest ones. Especially when the savings are applied to large, multibillion-dollar fleets flying millions of miles annually.
Advertising people watch this kind of contest with great interest, because it’s no ordinary strategy with a predictable outcome. It’s true, positive results sometimes go hand-in-gauntlet with a negative approach. A first-strike buzz is virtually guaranteed, and the competition is cast in a glaring, unflattering light. Authoritative voice may be gained, especially for a known, trustworthy brand. And, the negative message can focus on, and quickly correct, a misunderstanding in the marketplace.
But on the dark side, negativity almost always detracts from a brand’s primary message, identity and personality. (Unless you’re the Oakland Raiders, who make an art form of the bad-boy image.) Setting aside a brand’s strengths to attack another’s weaknesses oftentimes seems mean-spirited – or even desperate – and can quickly unravel a brand’s good-guy image. The advertising audience may mentally give the competitors license to strike back, and the aggressor brand’s next misstep might just be fair game.
Success stories in developing the negative abound in the consumer world. In the mid-60s, Avis Car Rental’s indirect shot at Hertz earned huge attention and market share with, “Avis is only No. 2 in rent a cars. So we try harder.” And it was almost unfair the way Macintosh brilliantly belittled Windows with their light-hearted but deadly young hipster sympathetically skewering the PC “suit.”
But, back to the business-to-business at hand: Several years ago, Airbus ran an ad that may have implied Boeing’s two-engine 777 was less safe for transoceanic flights than the Airbus four-engine entry. Some considered it an out-and-out cheap shot. And because the 777 has since racked up millions of safe miles over the pond, the claim has essentially been neutralized.
Fast-forward to present day. Airbus recently executed a campaign showing a Boeing 737MAX with a lengthened Pinocchio nosecone and the headline, “Why is our competitor stretching the truth?” in reaction to Boeing ads that had aggressively compared their aircraft to the Airbus A320neo. Airbus folks felt Boeing had crossed a line with certain performance data and responded with two ads asserting that Boeing was essentially “untruthful” and “lagging behind.”
It’s an interesting and unprecedented contest of messages between two important manufacturers. Boeing has yet to respond. Will they take the high road with a comparative benefit approach, or are they waiting for an opening to jab?
Time will tell. Because in the delicate business of negative advertising, sometimes even when you win, you lose.