Comparative Advertising: What Have We Learned in Two Decades?

Thomas E Barry

A recent advertisement carries the following headline:

Comparing a used Dodge Spirit to a new Honda Accord seemed a little ridiculous. Until we saw the results.

To many practitioners and academics, comparative advertising is ridiculous; to others, it is a very effective means of competing in the marketing communication war. During the last 20 years, advertisers have increasingly used the comparative advertising format to more directly attack competitive brands in the marketplace. The underlying premise of comparative advertising stems from the Federal Trade Commission's early 1970s' assertion that comparative argumentation in the media provides consumers with more information and can, therefore, lead to more effective decision-making in the consumption process. This premise, of course, is based on the important assumption that the comparative 'information' provided by advertisers using this format is both interesting and informative to audiences. A significant amount of research has been directed toward comparative advertising. Much of it has been done without the benefit of any standardized definitions. Further, the research is more typically than not based on undergraduate college students as subjects, low-involvement products and print media. Many questions still exist regarding the efficacy of comparative advertising. This article presents a brief history of comparative advertising, summarizes its pros and cons from the literature as well as a survey of creative executives, summarizes the effectiveness research within the framework of the hierarchy of effects and looks at the implications for the future of research in comparative advertising.