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On bashing the competition.

Taking pot shots at the competition in print is apparently back in fashion. Microsoft runs full page ads claiming that a nationwide poll proves WordPerfect users prefer Word; WordPerfect fires back that "even Family Feud" collects more honest data. Software Publishing Corp. says a rival Windows database "comes with a plague of well-publicized bugs." A Lotus headline asks, "We've heard that someone actually paid for Microsoft e-mail. It wasn't you, was it?" IBM hands out T-shirts that say, "NT: Nice Try". And so forth.

What's going on here? Dan McCarthy, editor of the bi-weekly Computer Publishing & Advertising Report, argues that head-to-head advertising is usually a good way to reach knowledgeable customers. "The conventional wisdom is that you don't remind customers about your competitors," says McCarthy. "But software buyers these days are well aware of their options--you don't fool anyone by not mentioning the competition. In some ways, these ads are just the logical evolution of traditional feature comparison charts."

We asked McCarthy for his thoughts about the effectiveness of bash-the-competition advertising:

These ads don't just make polite comparisons of features--they sometimes get openly hostile. why?

"You don't win any more in this industry on product features. You win on price, on market exposure, on guts. The company with the most guts--and frankly, that's usually Microsoft--usually makes the strongest impression on customers."

What about the theory that people react negatively to competitor-bashing?

"I don't buy that theory at all. Software is a utilitarian purchase: You don't refuse to buy a product you need just because you dislike the hype and anguish in someone's ads. Besides, I think right now most corporate buyers get their information out of catalogs, where there's a more positive selling message than in the computer press."

How well do competitive ads define real product differences?

"The thing that's wonderful about these ads is that the manufacturers all understand they have to back up their claims with facts (or pseudo-facts). But I don't see enough real, hard-hitting information in these ads. Nobody's talking about how long it really takes to convert a document from one word processor to another, or about programs that don't even work right. Computer consumers are willing to absorb an immense amount of information--witness the number of pages in most computer magazines--but most comparative ads are just like kids in a school yard yelling at each other. So, bottom line, these ads don't accomplish a hell of a lot."

So what's the point?

"Well, I suppose they make Bill Gates and Jim Manzi feel tough."

Dan McCarthy, editor, Computer Publishing & Advertising Report, c/o Coles Business Media, Box 4949, Stamford, Conn. 06907; 203/358-9900.
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Date:May 31, 1993
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