When Advertisers Attack

“Mac OS X gets out of your way,” says one Apple convert, “where as Windows wants to constantly be in your face.” When Apple launched its Macintosh in 1984, it hurled a hammer in the face of PC domination with “1984.” Although Apple never entirely buried the hammer, this summer it launched its most aggressive attack on PCs in the estimated $50 million “Switchers” campaign.

In response to “Switchers,” Gateway came out with an animated spot in which its Profile 4 model leap frogs over an iMac, then turns to blow a raspberry at it. A voiceover touts the computer’s features and concludes, “Did we mention that the Gateway Profile costs less than the iMac?”

It’s all part of a recent spate of attack ads from clients that until re cently relied on a softer sell. The conventional wisdom is that any client lagging be hind the category leader has to try harder. And the difficult economy often calls for a new tactic.

“When times are tough and people are a little more desperate, they’ll do things they haven’t done before to see what kind of reaction they can get,” says Marty Brandt, a partner at brand consultancy TrueBrand.

Calling attention to competitors can be risky, as is making claims of superiority. “You’d better have some compelling reasons for people to be persuaded to take you up on the offer,” says Brandt.

The ideal scenario for an attack is “if it’s one big guy and one little feisty competitor,” says Ted Sann, chairman and chief creative officer at BBDO New York, Pepsi’s longtime agency. In Pepsi’s case, he says, it was the “scale of the competition” that spurred shots at Coke. The Pepsi Challenge was born in 1975, followed by more high-concept attacks, such as 1985’s Grand Prix-winning “Archaeology,” in which a future generation has no memory of Coke. “We don’t overdo it,” says Sann. “Every once in a while you have to remind them that this stuff really does taste better than that stuff. That’s the rational side of the equation.”

Jack in the Box is the feisty little competitor in recent spots that take aim at rivals including McDonald’s and Subway. In one ad from Secret Weapon Marketing in Santa Monica, Calif., Jack finds a guy named Jared on the subway and gets him to admit he prefers Jack in the Box.

As the No. 4 Internet service provider in the U.S., EarthLink is also the David to America Online’s Goli ath. And the timing was right. “Earth Link is hitting AOL where it’s vulnerable at a time when its vulnerability is becoming visible,” says Rob Enderle at IT advisory firm Giga Information Group.

When EarthLink put its account into review in January, it was looking for an approach that incorporated more nitty-gritty product information, says Steffan Postaer, evp and chief creative officer of LB Works, the Leo Burnett division that won the business. In one spot, the “Why wait?” campaign shows a Web surfer closing a slew of pop-up ads. “7.0 … seven point this,” he grumbles, referring to AOL’s current software upgrade.

Attacking competitors “means [creative] concessions,” acknowledges Postaer, “sometimes at the expense of aesthetic beauty.” Pos taer’s aim was to be able to evolve beyond the hard sell down the road. “The worst thing [would have been] a campaign that did everything they wanted in the short term but had no potential,” he says.

Apple’s attack is far less subtle than EarthLink’s, with former PC users badmouthing Microsoft’s Windows in the TBWA\Chiat\Day campaign. In the month after it launched, according to Apple, the Switcher Web site had 1.7 million unique visitors, 60 percent of them Windows users. Apple will not reveal sales figures.

When Gateway volleyed back, it was to promote its iMac lookalike, the Profile. It was simply time to retaliate, says creative director Rob Siltanen of Siltanen/Keehn in El Segundo, Calif. “Apple has lobbed shots at the PC industry, and the PC industry hasn’t really shot back,” he says.

Sometimes, however, it’s wiser not to enter the fray. Says Cheryl Idell, president of Intermedia Advertising Group, which tracks ad effectiveness: “We don’t see a theme where these ads are being recalled at a higher level or people like them more than other ads.”