What is Comparative Advertising? [+ Examples]

The Marketer‘s Complete Guide to Comparative Advertising in 2024

Comparative advertising can be a powerful but tricky marketing tactic. When you directly compare your product or brand to a competitor‘s, you‘re making a bold statement that could change how consumers see you both. Get it right, and you could sway buyers your way and establish your brand as the superior option. Get it wrong, and you risk confusing your audience, losing their trust, and even landing in legal trouble.

So what exactly is comparative advertising, and how can you use this technique effectively? In this complete guide, we‘ll break down everything marketers need to know about comparative ads in 2024—from the latest real-world examples to best practices and legal considerations. Whether you‘re a small business owner or a marketing leader at an enterprise brand, you‘ll learn how to wield comparisons in your advertising to drive results.

What is comparative advertising?

Comparative advertising is a marketing strategy in which a brand‘s product or service is presented as superior to what a competitor offers. The ad directly or indirectly names the competing brand and compares specific features, benefits, or prices to influence consumers‘ purchasing decisions.

A comparative ad might call out a competitor for an ingredient they lack, a higher price they charge, or an advantage the advertised brand provides that others don‘t. The goal is to give buyers a clear, concrete reason to choose your product over alternatives.

While comparative advertising has been around since the 1960s, it has evolved significantly over the decades. Today, comparative ads come in all formats, from traditional print and TV to social media videos, influencer posts, digital banners, and more. A 2023 study by Kantar found that over 40% of consumers actually want brands to show direct comparisons in their advertising.

But there are also major pitfalls to this approach. Comparative claims must be factual and substantiated to avoid misleading people and stay within legal bounds. Disparaging a competitor can also be seen as distasteful and erode a brand‘s integrity. With the massive scale of digital ads, a misstep can spark backlash that seriously damages your reputation.

To illustrate the nuances of comparative advertising, let‘s look at some real examples of brands executing it well (and not so well) recently:

5 Examples of Comparative Advertising in Action

  1. Apple‘s iPhone 14 vs. the Competition

In 2023, Apple faced stiffer smartphone competition than ever, with rivals like Samsung and Google touting advanced camera systems and AI capabilities. To make the iPhone 14‘s advantages concrete for consumers, Apple launched a comparative campaign called "Your photo. Your iPhone."

Each ad zoomed in on a specific feature—like low-light performance or action mode stabilization—with side-by-side photo comparisons showing how iPhone 14 images looked better than the same shot on another flagship phone. By letting the results speak for themselves, Apple drew clear contrasts without even naming competitors.

  1. Chevrolet Calls Out Ford (Carefully)

When Chevrolet launched its Silverado EV pickup in early 2024, the automaker knew its biggest competitor would be Ford‘s F-150 Lightning. In a 30-second Superbowl TV spot, Chevy highlighted the Silverado EV‘s superior driving range, home power backup capability, and faster charging compared to the "leading EV pickup."

While Chevy avoided stating Ford‘s name, it used just enough clues for truck owners to connect the dots. And focusing on three specific, factual advantages kept the comparisons fair while giving gearheads compelling reasons to consider Chevy‘s electric truck.

  1. Oatly Gets Cheeky with a Competitor‘s Ingredients

Oatly didn‘t become a leader in oat milk by shying away from competitors. The disruptive brand frequently uses comparative advertising to show how its products differ.

When a major rival launched a new oat milk in 2024 with added vitamins and stabilizers, Oatly pounced. It ran social media ads with the cheekily-worded claim "What do you call an oat milk with 10+ added ingredients? False advertising. What do you call oat milk with just oats? Oatly." The humor and directness sparked discussion online and drew fans to rally around Oatly‘s minimalist approach.

  1. Yelp‘s Misguided "Algorithm Bias" Attack

Not all comparative campaigns land well. In 2024, review site Yelp tried to differentiate itself from Google Maps by alleging that Google‘s review ranking system was "tainted by ad bias." Digital ads claimed businesses could "buy their way to the top of Google," while Yelp‘s algorithm was "ad-free and unbiased."

The problem? Yelp failed to back up its claims with evidence. Critics quickly pointed out that Yelp also offers paid ads and upgrades that could sway results, making its "unbiased" assertions ring hollow. The blowback dominated social chatter and overshadowed any intended product benefits. Yelp quietly pulled the ads after a week.

  1. Noom‘s Risky Dig at Rival Apps

The weight loss app category is highly competitive, with major players like WeightWatchers and MyFitnessPal regularly touting their results and reach. So when upstart Noom wanted to stand out in 2024, it tried some pointed comparative advertising.

In one YouTube pre-roll ad, perky cartoon characters proclaimed "Those other weight loss apps? They‘ll make you lose pounds…in your bank account!" and "Noom is built on real psychology, not just calorie counting." But the vague swipes risked confusing viewers about which competitors it was referencing. General digs can come across as petty if there are no specific, evidence-backed contrasts. Noom added some clearer comparisons in later ads.

As these examples show, there are many ways to approach comparative advertising, with varying degrees of risk and reward. So how can you determine if this tactic is right for your brand? And what guardrails do you need to follow? Here‘s what every marketer should know.

The Pros and Cons of Comparative Advertising

Before creating any comparative ads, it‘s crucial to weigh the potential advantages and drawbacks. On the plus side, studies have found comparative advertising can drive these key benefits:

Raising brand awareness: Directly referencing a better-known competitor can help a new or rising brand attract the attention of that competitor‘s customers. You‘re essentially borrowing their brand equity to get noticed.

Highlighting your unique value: By focusing an ad around your most compelling product differences, you give consumers clear reasons to believe your brand is the better choice. You can shape their criteria with the comparisons you choose.

Swaying decisions: Comparative ads can simplify purchasing decisions by framing the choice as between two options and guiding people to the superior one. This can shorten the research process.

Spurring brand loyalty: Giving customers a reason to favor your brand creates positive associations that can boost loyalty and advocacy over time. People may feel proud to have chosen the "best" option.

However, there are also some significant risks to consider:

Confusion: Referencing multiple brands in one ad can backfire if the comparisons aren‘t extremely clear. One study found that up to 80% of consumers misidentify which brand is being advertised in comparative ads.

Reputation damage: Attacking a competitor too harshly or with flimsy claims can seem desperate and damage your brand integrity. Consumers dislike mudslinging and may tune you out if your ads are too negative.

Legal issues: Comparative ads open brands up to potential lawsuits if their claims can‘t be substantiated. Intellectual property and false advertising disputes can be costly public relations nightmares.

Inadvertently helping rivals: Even if an ad makes your brand look better, it still gives a competitor extra exposure. A comparative ad that lacks a memorable hook for your brand can just raise a rival‘s profile.

To mitigate these risks, establish a clear process for concepting, reviewing and approving comparative ads. Involve your legal team early to vet claims and reduce legal exposure. And set specific, measurable objectives for any comparative campaign so you can gauge the actual impact relative to the risks.

The Legal Ins and Outs of Comparative Ads

Brands can face serious legal consequences for untrue or unsubstantiated comparative claims. In the US, comparative ads must adhere to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)‘s truth-in-advertising standards. The FTC states that comparisons "must be truthful, not deceptive, and supported by evidence."

The FTC has cracked down on many big brands for unsupported comparative claims, including Neutrogena‘s 2023 ads claiming its makeup remover worked "5x better than the competition." The brand couldn‘t back that up, so it had to pull the ads and issue refunds.

In the European Union, a 2023 consumer protection directive required brands to provide "clear evidence" for any comparative claims. UK regulators also fined several brands under its Comparative Advertising Guidance rules.

Other major markets like Australia, Canada, and Japan have their own similar truth-in-advertising laws. Penalties for violations can include fines, corrective advertising, legal fees, and civil lawsuits from competitors.

To stay on the right side of the law, any comparative advertising you create should be:

  1. Truthful and not deceptive
  2. Fair in how it represents both the advertised product and the compared alternatives
  3. Substantiated by reliable, objective evidence like lab tests, clinical trials, consumer surveys, etc.
  4. Specific in the claims it makes (vague comparisons like "better quality" are more likely to be challenged)
  5. Compliant with all other advertising laws and standards for your brand‘s industry and region

Have your legal team review comparative ad concepts, scripts and assets with these criteria in mind. Keep records of all substantiation in case a claim is ever challenged. And monitor competitors‘ comparative ads aimed at your brand for violations you may need to report.

Creating Compelling Comparative Ads: Best Practices

When crafting comparative advertising, how can you maximize the benefits and minimize the risks discussed above? These six best practices can help you walk that line:

  1. Compare specific features that matter to your audience. Focus on the attributes shoppers care about most, whether that‘s ingredients, price, effectiveness, etc. Avoid broad statements in favor of precise contrasts.

  2. Choose an angle that accentuates your strengths. Build the comparison around whatever your most ownable, provable product advantages are. Think about what truly makes your brand unique.

  3. Keep it factual and straightforward. Consumers can see through gimmicks and exaggerated claims. Let the head-to-head data tell a simple, convincing story. Use side-by-side demos when possible.

  4. Strike the right tone. A touch of humor can make comparative ads more memorable and likable, but too much snark will seem petty. Find a voice that‘s confident but not cruel, clever but never crass. When in doubt, err on the side of classy.

  5. Don‘t get tunnel vision. A singular comparative ad might work well, but varying your tactics is vital for a well-rounded marketing strategy. Keep comparative messaging in balance with other types of ads and content.

  6. Test and learn as you go. You can A/B test comparative ads just like other creative to see what resonates. Try different competitors, claims, tones, and formats to optimize your approach over time.

Also consider the context and channels where comparative ads make sense for your brand. Detailed comparisons might work better on your website than in a brief social ad, for instance. With digital ads, look for opportunities to deploy comparisons closer to the point of purchase—like the Google Shopping listings or Amazon product pages where people are actively researching.

The Future of Comparative Advertising

As new ad technologies emerge, opportunities are arising to take comparative advertising in innovative directions. For example, virtual try-on tools now let beauty brands show side-by-side simulations of how their products look compared to rivals—letting shoppers instantly see the difference for themselves.

AI-driven personalization is also opening new doors. Imagine a comparative ad that dynamically updates based on a shopper‘s past purchases and current preferences, instantly showing how your brand stacks up to the competition in their consideration set.

At the same time, the legal landscape around comparative advertising is constantly evolving. The FTC recently proposed an update to its Endorsement Guides that would require advertisers to more clearly disclose when an endorser has been paid, even in comparative contexts. The UK is also considering new rules on greenwashing that could impact how brands can position themselves relative to competitors‘ sustainability.

So as you navigate the comparative advertising waters, staying on top of these developments will be key. Set up alerts for regulatory changes, monitor what innovative brands are trying with new formats, and keep your competitive intelligence radar on.

Measuring the Impact of Your Comparative Ads

Finally, make sure you have the right measurement plan in place to evaluate your comparative advertising efforts. Some KPIs to track:

  • Ad recall and brand awareness lift among target audiences
  • Consideration and preference for your brand vs. competitors mentioned
  • Conversion rates and sales lift relative to other ad types
  • Engagement, comments, and sentiment on social media and in digital ad platforms
  • Share of voice in your category relative to competitors over time

Tools like brand lift studies, cross-channel attribution, and media mix modeling can help you isolate the impact of your comparative ads and optimize your strategy accordingly. Learn what claims, formats, and tactics produce the best results for your brand, and keep testing to stay ahead.

Wielding Comparisons Wisely

Ultimately, comparative advertising is a powerful tool that should be wielded carefully. It has the potential to shift consumer perceptions and drive major business results. But if mishandled, it can also backfire and damage the very brand equity you‘re trying to build.

As you explore ways to highlight your product‘s advantages, keep the best practices and cautionary tales above in mind. Ground your comparative ads in facts, strike the right tone, and closely monitor the impact. With a thoughtful approach, you can make comparative advertising a highly effective part of your marketing mix.

Remember, the goal isn‘t just to make your brand look good in the moment, but to earn long-term trust and preference with your audience. Comparisons can pave the way there when used judiciously. So go forth and compare wisely.