Advertising Similar Products
I’m going to walk a fine line in this blog post. It’s the line between honesty and salesmanship, journalistic ethics versus marketing. If I leave any question in your mind, let me state now for the record: I believe that marketing is a just and honest profession. I do not believe that good marketing misleads people, that it tricks people, or that it makes people do things that they would not ordinarily do. I believe that marketers should follow a code of ethics just as journalists and doctors and law enforcement should.
That being said, it’s not the same code of ethics.
Every product on the free market has a right to market itself to consumers. Marketing is essentially showing how you are different (better?) than your competitors. But, what if you’re not different than your competitors? What if the product that you offer is completely identical to another product? How do you make the distinction in a consumer’s mind between your product and another identical product?
In other words, how do Motrin and Advil advertise?
Let’s take a look at the list of active ingredients in each product.
Motrin: Ibuprofen 200mg (NSAID)
Advil: Ibuprofen 200 mg (NSAID)
A journalist who shows a truly unbiased viewpoint would say that both products contain the same ingredients, in the same dose. Choose whichever product is less expensive at the store. That’s honest journalism.
The journalist may point out that one box is blue and one is orange. They may say that one company has been around longer, that one company has more/fewer complaints, or talk about the stock prices of the respective companies.
Great, but it doesn’t sell pain relievers.
Now, let’s look at how a marketer approaches this challenge. The bold copy is from the websites for each brand.
“MOTRIN works by targeting pain precisely where you need it the most.”
Wow. Motrin must be like a laser-guided missile that seeks out the pain in my body and attacks it with the deadliness of a thousands ninjas. Wonder how it really works? Well, Motrin actually tells us: “Medically speaking, MOTRIN targets pain by inhibiting the prostaglandins your body produces when injured or sick.”
Prostaglandins? Sounds awesome. There’s no way Advil can compete with that, right?
Well, Advil says that “Nothing is proven stronger or longer-lasting on tough pain than Advil*” (That little * says “among OTC pain relievers”).
Damn. It might not target my pain like a ninja, but this really hurts, and there’s nothing stronger than Advil, short of a morphine prescription from my doctor. I wonder how Advil actually works. Let’s look for the answer, right on Advil.com – “Advil acts by blocking the body’s production of prostaglandins, reducing pain and fever.”
Those prostaglandins sure seem to cause a lot of trouble, don’t they? But what about that claim? Nothing is STRONGER or LONGER-LASTING than Advil? Is it true? Of course it’s true. Motrin isn’t stronger than Advil. Of course, Advil isn’t stronger than Motrin either. They’re exactly the same product.
I still can’t decide which pain reliever I should buy. I wish one of the companies had a video that featured a pretty girl with an infectious laugh to make me feel warm and fuzzy about their product. Oh, wait….
Notice how the woman “trains professional athletes” and that she “knows how her body should feel“? Good copywriting.
I’m Still Not Convinced
If only doctors preferred one over the other, that would convince me. Oh, wait – from the Advil website: “In fact, to treat their own aches and pains, the medicine doctors use most is the medicine in Advil.”
Advil obviously kicks ass, right?
Well, no – because I can read critically. See, it doesn’t say that the medicine doctors use most is Advil. It says “the medicine doctors use most is the medicine IN Advil.” ie – ibuprofen, which is also found in Motrin and a thousand generic store brands in every pharmacy in the world.
The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most heavily regulated businesses in the world. No drug ad is complete without disclaimers and warnings. And yet, even under that scrutiny marketers can still find a way to distinguish two identical products from each other.
In AMCTV’s Mad Men, Donald Draper himself showed us an example of this type of advertising. I can’t embed the video, but please watch it on YouTube.
For what it’s worth – I use Advil. Not because Lacey is cute, or because the box is blue, but because I’ve always used it. I also think the coating on an Advil tastes a little bit like candy, which I kind of like.
If you can think of ways to market your product or service when it is identical to it’s competitors, you can certainly think of convincing ways to market your product or service when you have a distinct competitive advantage.
And if that fails, try coating it in candy.