See what I did there? No, but seriously, it feels like every other day I’m seeing or hearing an ad from a big company bashing one of its competitors like they’re political opponents and the election’s tomorrow. And you know what I never see or hear after that? A huge surge of positive publicity and sales for the company doing the bashing. You know why? Because while people like a good dose of snark now and again, it doesn’t feel right coming from a big corporation; it feels like hubris, or bullying, or both. Let’s take a look at a few examples of companies attacking their competition, and the backlash against them that followed.
#Hashtag Gone Wrong: T-Mobile vs Verizon
The debacle that inspired this post happened a few months ago. T-Mobile sponsored the Twitter hashtag #NeverSettleForVerizon, meaning that it appeared on the Trending hashtag list and would appear in users feeds. While many T-Mobile users were happy to trash on Verizon, others weren’t so enthusiastic.
There are two things that T-Mobile seems to have forgotten. The first is that even if you sponsor a hashtag you do not own it. (See #McDStories, #myNYPD, #CosbyMeme.) Once a hashtag is out there anyone can join in, even your haters. The second thing they forgot is that Verizon actually has a better network than them – something that users gleefully pointed out again and again. Look, we all get the urge to take the “big guy” down a peg or two, but when that big guy actually offers a better service, your attempts don’t look brave (or funny), they look spiteful.
Budweiser Goes After the Little Guy
If you were disappointed by the lack of Clydesdales and puppies in this year’s Budweiser SuperBowl ad, you aren’t the only one. Once again, Budweiser decided to use their most-watched ad of the year to lash out at craft brewing companies. You might remember the 2015 ad that managed to be condescending, snobby, and hypocritical while trying to appeal to the “common man.” They swung wildly back and forth between statements like Budweiser is not “brewed to be fussed over” and “the only beer Beechwood aged”. Well, as many critics pointed out, which is it? Do you not care about the process, or are you proud of it? Afterwards, Budweiser tried to claim they weren’t mocking craft beer, but rather affirming what Budweiser is, which went over like a lead balloon. Yet a year later, they did the same thing again. I mean, its not like Budweiser is going to go out of business. They’re still the main beer sold at sporting events, after all. But whatever happened to that likeable company that had the football-playing Clydesdales, and “This Bud’s For You”? The younger generations might not drink as much Budweiser as their parents did, but up until these ads they at least had a favorable impression of the company. Not so much anymore.
Arby’s Insults Subway, Angers Iowans
A few years ago, Arby’s unveiled an ad campaign poking fun at Subway for shipping their “fresh” deli meat cross-country, while highlighting Arby’s own practice of slicing their meat in-house for each sandwich made. Seems harmless, right? Except that Arby’s specifically poked fun at one of the factories that slices Subway’s meat, disdainfully pointing out that this factory is in Iowa – a long way for a sandwich. Well you know who wasn’t happy about that? Iowans. Turns out when you make fun of a state and an industry that supports their economy, people get upset. Arby’s apologized, said that they didn’t mean to mock Iowa, and issued a new version of the ad with that statement taken out. But I mean, come on – if you’re a struggling chain and want to drum up new business, maybe try not offending 3.076 million potential customers, yeah?
Here’s the point I’m trying to make: while negative marketing has been shown to work (don’t have dry skin! don’t overeat! don’t miss out!), that type of negativity is used as a motivator. You don’t want to be the negative thing, so you buy the product so you’re the positive thing. In the ads I listed above, that’s not what’s happening, these are just companies bashing their competitors to make themselves look better. And as you can see from the reactions those ads got, those companies’ plans backfired. So next time you’re working on an ad campaign and you think, “Hey, I’ll mock our competitor, it’ll be great!”, come back here, take a look at these examples, and think again.