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National Competitors: Behind the scenes or over the line?

by Megan Reichenbach, editor

We all have those products that are a go-to while doing our usual weekly grocery run. For me, I immediately pick up the Kashi cereal over Special K, Diet Coke rather than Diet Pepsi and Tide cleaning products over the generic Publix brand.

We all develop a loyalty to preferred brands, leaving those companies to thrive because we are immediately drawn away from their competitors.

But, this does not mean that those competitors impacted by our purchases are not finding ways for loyal buyers to divert from their usual purchases. Brands such as Coca-Cola and PC Windows 7 have been blatantly attacked in national television commercials through media manipulation and comparison advertising.

Media manipulation is defined as “an aspect of public relations in which partisans create an image or argument that favors their particular interests.”

Comparison advertising is a “promotional technique in which the advertiser claims the superiority of its product over competing products by direct or indirect comparison.”

Companies have been using manipulation and comparison advertising in recent television commercials in order to divert attention from a competitor’s brand to their own.

Santa Claus: the legendary Coca-Cola icon

The Coca-Cola and PepsiCo rivalry is still one of the oldest, most publicized product rivalries in America. In the summer of 2011, PepsiCo took the competition to the next level by stealing Coca-Cola’s most iconic symbol, Santa Claus, in its “Summer Time is Pepsi Time” commercials.

“The commercial stars a short-sleeved Santa who does the unthinkable and deliberately picks Pepsi-Cola over Coke – because he’s on ‘vacation’,” Fiona Roberts said in a July 2011 MailOnline article.

Usually competition shown on television is behind the lines, but this commercial specifically got me thinking . . . Is this blatant strategy even ethical?

According to the Businessihub article, “Comparative advertising: Ethical mode of increasing the brand image,” comparative advertising has been begging the question of whether this marketing strategy is ethical.

The PepsiCo commercial clearly overshadows Coca-Cola’s ownership of the Santa Claus icon, giving it a more enjoyable connotation by partnering the concept of Santa drinking Pepsi with the idea of summer vacation. Can PepsiCo really overshadow the entire idea of the Santa Claus icon that Coca-Cola began in the first place? According to a Businessihub post, “overshadowing a brand to increase the market penetration for one brand is considered as an unethical process by many.”

After watching the “Summertime is Pepsi Time” commercial for the first time, I was shocked by PepsiCo’s use of such blatant competitive attacks. According to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, “the intent and connotation of the ad should be to inform and never to discredit or unfairly attack competitors, competing products or services.”

In the 2011 commercial, PepsiCo failed to inform consumers of its product, and instead created its main focus around Santa choosing the Pepsi product over Coca-Cola.

Steve Job’s invention of Apple – PC’s worst nightmare

On its website, Apple describes the act of buying a PC Windows 7 as a purchase downgrade because obtaining an Apple product has the potential to “upgrade your entire computer experience.”

While browsing the Apple site, you constantly run into claims that the Apple computers are a far better choice than a PC: “It has features you won’t find on a PC. So from the outside in, a Mac is designed to be a better computer.”

In a series of the “Get a Mac” television commercials starring actor Justin Long (seen in films such as Jeepers Creepers, Dodgeball and Live Free or Die Hard), the Mac computer is repeatedly suggested to be a far better choice of a computer.

According to a PCWorld Article, “the commercials pinned a nerdy-looking, suit-wearing John Hodgman as a PC against a younger and supposedly cooler Justin Long as a Mac.” Through the use of a celebrity endorsement the commercial is using comparison advertising. The Apple industry is clearly implying that Mac users are essentially “cooler” than those who use a PC.

The “Get a Mac” commercials raise the ethical question of whether the stereotypes depicted are even true. According to a CNN news article, a survey by Hunch suggests that Mac users can be seen as “elitists or more pretentious.” I find it to be a far-fetched claim that using a specific brand of a computer can actually change you as a person; a computer is a computer, right?

Are these ads offending PC users, giving them the reputation that they are less tech-savvy just because they invested in a PC rather than a Mac computer? It seems as though the Apple industry is manipulating its market to “think” just that.

We all can agree that commercials such as these have used media manipulation and comparison advertising to successfully reach their consumer market. But, when is that ethical line crossed and when will the attacked brands retaliate?


  1. Post comment

    I can agree that the first time I saw this type of direct, comparative advertising it shocked me. I couldn’t believe the fact that one company had the nerve to blatantly attack its number one competitor on national television. Whether this type of advertising is ethical or not may be up for debate, but in my PR-centered mind there is no question—it’s bad news bears.
    As a rule of thumb, whenever I start to question whether or not something is ethical, I ask myself one thing: “What would Grandma think?” If she would send me to timeout, then it’s probably not a good thing to say or do. In the case of these advertisements, she would tell these companies they “ought to be ashamed,” right before she made them turn the TV off and read a book. Here are three reasons why:

    1. It makes you look petty.
    Even though these commercials are funny and entertaining, they convey a rude and disrespectful attitude from your company. Customers may fear this rudeness and disrespect will spill over into the way you treat them, as well.

    2. It makes you seem insecure.
    It’s the oldest trick in the book. When you feel threatened by someone, you point out all of their flaws and try to show everyone how much better you are than that person. Unfortunately, this defense is often paper-thin, and usually exposes the truth—they’re worth worrying over. Mind your own business!

    3. You pay for their publicity!
    Your company paid BIG money for that 30 second commercial, and half of it is focused on its biggest competitor! Grandma would probably tell these companies, “Now, you know better than that.”

    So even though these comparative advertisements may make for good entertainment, they might not make for good business. At the very least, I’m sure we all can agree that “petty” and “insecure” are not the best words to have associated with your company.

  2. Post comment

    I do not believe that Santa appearing in the PepsiCo commercial is unethical. As Santa has been the icon for Coca-Cola for years, using him in a PepsiCo commercial got the attention of many people. PepsiCo most likely did this on purpose so the commercial would create a buzz around the brand. This type of deliberate placement was a successful move for PepsiCo as people were actually thinking deeper into the commercial. On average, I am sure people would watch a PepsiCo commercial and think nothing about it.
    While it is playing a practical joke that Santa is on “vacation”, it brings in a new aspect. It has transformed the normal message of the commercial of actually persuading customers to buy their product into the fact that while on a relaxing vacation, Santa would drink PepsiCo over Coca-Cola. I believe this was a great advertisement that actually caught the eye and mind of viewers.

  3. Post comment

    As a public relations major, I had to take an advertising class this summer. We talked a lot about competitive advertising and the ethics behind it. I find it pretty unethical. I am always turned off by a brand or company that chooses to degrade their competitor. I know as a business they are simply looking to sell more products and make more money, but I do not think it is worth putting someone else down. I agree with what you said about the PepsiCo commercial being shocking. I hate to see other companies get put down and mocked for no reason. I believe this type of comparative and competitive advertising should be deemed unethical.
    -Sarah Sinclair

  4. Post comment

    Most comparative advertising isn’t unethical. It compares the differences between the brands and creates rivalry. Pointing out a unique selling point the competitor does not have is not unethical. If Mac commercials say they are better than PC’s, it shows they are the top two competitors in the market. The consumer will ultimately decide its preference with or without comparative advertising.

  5. Post comment

    I think comparison advertisement can sometimes be unethical. In the Santa Claus commercial PepsiCo directly compared its products to Coca-Cola’s products. It is obvious that this is comparison advertisement because PepsiCo is claiming superiority over Coca-Cola. Santa Claus has been an icon for Coca-Cola for 80 years, according to Coca-Cola’s website. I think it is unethical for PepsiCo to focus on its competitor’s icon instead of its own products.

    I researched media law to see if comparison advertisement is legal. I discovered that a company may sue to stop advertisements if another company has made false statements about its products, according to the Lanham Trademark Act of 1946. This means that comparison advertising is legal unless there is false information about a company.

    I think that PepsiCo did not say anything false about Coca-Cola in the Santa Claus commercial. But, I think that all companies should never misrepresent themselves or any other company.

    [Coca-Cola website:


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