Rob Lowe's DirecTV Ads Give Lessons in Comparison Advertising

Rob Lowe's DirecTV ads provide a lesson in comparison advertising. Photo © Marc Piasecki / Getty Images

DirecTV's recent advertising campaign featuring actor Rob Lowe may have gotten laughs, but it also drew complaints. The ads showed him as his normal self because he has DirecTV, but also as a crazy alter ego who subscribed to cable. It seemed that every week, there was a new commercial that showed him as some sort of creepy cable TV watcher.

The message was simply, be like the cool Rob Lowe and get DirecTV as opposed to a loser with cable.

The nation's largest cable TV operator, Comcast, found nothing to chuckle about and instead complained about some of the campaign's claims. The Better Business Bureau agreed with Comcast and asked DirecTV to stop the campaign.

In response, DirecTV said it would appeal, but that it was already planning to end the campaign and move on to something else. Still, this episode serves as a case study in comparison advertising, which is one of the 6 basic forms of media advertising.

Saying You're Better Than Your Rival

You naturally want to say that your product, whether it's a TV newscast or a bar of soap, is better than your competitor's. After all, you want customers to buy from you rather than them.

But you must be able to substantiate why you're better. Just because you think so isn't enough. You say your soap is better at cleaning and has a better smell than the competition's product. According to whom, just you?

You'd be better protected if you could say something like, "According to independent lab studies, our soap doesn't dry out your skin and gets your dirty feet cleaner quicker" while showing video of how your product works versus the other soap.

What DirecTV Said

Some of the claims that DirecTV made in its ads were that it offered better picture and sound than cable, had more sports programming and shorter customer service wait times.

The Better Business Bureau said it didn't find evidence to back up those statements.

Notice that DirecTV didn't mention Comcast or any other cable TV company directly. It simply compared itself to the cable industry. Still, for example, it would be hard to verify that DirecTV's customer service wait times are shorter than any and every cable TV company in the U.S. The same is true for picture and sound quality and sports programming. The claims are so broad that it's impossible to find out if they're true.

The Better Business Bureau did say DirecTV's 99% signal reliability and "up to 1080p" picture quality were valid claims. Notice that in these examples, DirecTV was talking only about the service it offers without saying it was better than cable. For all we know, cable offers the same signal reliability and picture quality.

Using Humor in Comparison Advertising

DirecTV says the humor it used in these ads should lead viewers to realize that the claims are so exagerrated that they didn't need to be substantiated.

There are plenty of examples of that.

Turn the calendar back to 1984 to Wendy's iconic "Where's the Beef?" TV commercial that showed three elderly women looking at a hamburger that had so much bun that you couldn't see the beef. The commercial said that Wendy's single hamburger had more beef than a Big Mac or a Whopper, while saying the rivals had more bun. In the fine print, the commercial says "net weight before cooking", but what about after cooking and was a Wendy's bun less than the competition? No one seemed to demand proof.

More recently, actor and comedian Will Ferrell starred in an ad campaign for the Dodge Durango SUV. In one ad, he touted the glove box that holds "two turkey sandwiches, six ball peen hammers, 70 packs of gum, 20 rulers." The commercials were meant to be so funny that customers or rivals didn't demand that Dodge back up those glove box boasts or ask the company to prove that the storage was better than that on a Ford or Chevrolet SUV. That's the argument DirecTV could make in its appeal.

Advertising by its very nature is designed to tout your product's features as better than anyone else's. Naturally, those competitors are trying to do the same. Just be sure you can back up what you say.

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