How Comparative Is Comparative Advertising?

Sidney J. Levy, Northwestern University
[ to cite ]:
Sidney J. Levy (1983) ,"How Comparative Is Comparative Advertising?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, eds. Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 381-382.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, 1983      Pages 381-382


Sidney J. Levy, Northwestern University

The three papers presented by the panel fit together well and raise some interesting issues. Eric Wendler deals with the effects of evaluative product in-formation and its comprehension on consumer confidence. Gorn and Weinberg explore the value of comparative advertising for challengers to brand leaders. Ash and Wee make my assignment as discussant easy by providing a review with implications for further research.

Wendler's study shows the changes in comprehension and confidence for two products, light bulbs and stereo decks, when subjects were given or not given product information that can be used by consumers to compare brands. The results for stereo decks support the hypothesis that in the case of a high risk, high involvement product, high comprehension of consumer information increases consumer confidence. In the low risk, low involvement situation of light bulbs, there were no meaningful changes because the levels of comprehension and confidence were so high under all conditions. In fact, there is a hint that the "no-information" condition was more comfortable, perhaps because that is the state light bulb purchasers prefer.

The results seem plausible, if one supposes the low risk, low involvement situation is so taken for granted that there is little room for growth of confidence; and the complexity and technicality of the information about stereo decks seems reasonably to create segments with different understanding and confidence.

The contrast of low, low and high, high suggests the concepts of risk and involvement go together; one cannot tell whether the risk or the involvement, or both, affect the outcomes. Similarly, the amount of information provided with the low, low product is small, and the high, high product gives a lot. It might be interesting to see what would happen if the light bulb information had been fuller or provided more guidance in explaining the value of knowing about lumens and other aspects of bulb efficiency. Another source of difficulty in interpreting the results lies in the close relationship between comprehension and decision confidence, as both were measured on parallel scales in which subjects rated their own understanding and confidence rather than having an independent assessment of these.

Wendler uses messages for the same product with different amounts of information, with the implication that the added information could be used to compare competitive products, but direct comparisons are not made. His messages do not conform to the definition that the other papers use, which requires that a competitor be referred to explicitly. Some different results might have been obtained if lumens, hours, and prices had been presented for GE and Westinghouse, as well as Sylvania. Giving some figures here only hints that brands might differ but not whether they do in any important ways.

Gorn and Weinberg address the comparative issue more directly by comparing reactions to comparative ads with reactions to non-comparative ads. Their results suggest that when a challenger makes comparisons with a leading brand. it benefits from more favorable attitudes and less distance from the leading brand than when it does not make a direct comparison. However, these benefits were more visible for toothpaste and cigarettes than for golf balls, again raising motivation or involvement issues.

The review by Ash and Wee is quite thorough, covering many of the important issues that have been raised by the variable results that appear to be achieved by comparative advertising, in practice and in research studies. The diversity of results they report, and the two studies presented this morning bring to mind the following thoughts.

What constitutes comparative advertising? Wendler believes that standardized "comparative, evaluative information provision" that allows cross-brand and cross-product comparisons serves the purpose. But what advertising content does not allow some degree of comparison? If the light bulb at said only "Sylvania," some consumers might not buy them because they would have the comparative thought that GE bulbs are better. If so, a degree of comparison always exists and basic questions may be asked not just about the presence or absence of comparative advertising, as Gorn and Weinberg do, but about the consequences of the amount and kinds of comparisons made in the communications and those triggered in consumers' minds. We probably should not define comparative advertising as that which explicitly refers to a competitor's brand, but recognize and study the varying degrees of implicit and explicit comparison. Some typical points along the continuum might be these.

1. Just mentioning the brand name refers to whatever implicit comparisons past experience has built in.

2. Much conventional advertising refers to characteristics of the brand or product in generally comparative terns, such as "freshest," "highest quality." etc.

3. Giving information, as Wendler did, that could be used for specific evaluative comparison, without naming the competitors. The difference in motivation between bulbs and stereo decks points to interesting variations. Technical factors are known to be discriminating ones that consumers use already, with knowledgeable stereo buffs, hut people are not likely to know how many lumens are desirable, not having a commonly-known scale to guide then in judgment. Many appliances now refer to BTUs and to energy ratings or insulation ratings, and consumers are learning to understand when one or another of these numbers is suited to their need.

4. Giving comparative information that names and/or shows competitive brands may be done in a relatively "neutral" or factual manner, seeming to foster rational choice without making direct invidious comparisons. Sometimes charts show the presence or absence of certain product features, providing a basis for choice rather than implying the competitor is not as good. The advertiser may still seem more virtuous for being so informative and willing to give credit to a competitor for its particular features. Sometimes this approach has the aspect of a two-sided argument. granting them that, but claiming this for us.

5. Giving comparative information that is clearly designed to claim superiority is what is usually meant by comparative advertising. Gorn and Weinberg mention that comparative advertising is thought to aid brand leaders less than challengers, as in politics where it is considered foolish for incumbents to take account of and publicize their lesser known challengers, as if they were worthy of notice. However, some leaders seem to do this with good effect, such as Heinz catsup demonstrating its superior thickness, or Dristan using a chart to show its several assets compared to lesser brands.

6. An extreme example is advertising that not only emphasizes claimed superiority, but that vigorously attacks the competitor as being specifically inferior (Burger Ring's attack on Mcdonald) or even dangerous. Such advertising is most provocative. most likely to stir controversy and ambivalence among consumers. It leads people to complain that comparative advertising is unfair, sort of un-American, it being natural to boast but not nice to knock the competition; and it fosters counterarguing. A marketing research study of a pharmaceutical advertisement in which a competitive brand was named as potentially hazardous clearly impressed and frightened physicians. The attitudes of different segments were important to distinguish. The users of the attacking brand were reaffirmed in their affiliation; non-users were made defensive and more inquiring, wanting to have more evidence and to know the defense of the competitor. These were probably the desired results. However, among both segments the strong attack was resisted with counterarguing on behalf of retaining the flexibility of prescribing both brands; and the motives of the attacker were questioned as seeming too fearful of competition and as possibly unethical.

Thus, as the Ash and Wee discussion also suggests, it may be that it will never be easy to generalize about something called comparative advertising. It seems to be as variegated as what is called noncomparative advertising, and offers the endless prospect of studying its numerous degrees, conditions, and outcomes.