Comparative advertising, where one company takes dead aim at another company, can be a remarkably effective way to capture the attention of a target market. For instance, let’s assume Product A is the market leader for potato chips to the point where a large percentage of the target market thinks of this brand first when they want to purchase chips. Product B, on the other hand, may be an upstart brand looking to capture some of Product A’s market share. Using a strong comparative advertising message, that has Brand B discussing the limitations of Brand A, the upstart brand may eventually get some customers to think of their brand when the need arises for potato chips. This outcome has a higher probability of occurring if the comparison advertisement runs for an extended period and is presented across different media (e.g. TV, Internet, print).
However, comparative advertising is also inherently dangerous, especially when an upstart uses this strategy against a leading brand. Invariably, the market leader will fight back with their own ads that often contain the message “we are the leader and you can trust us, but you cannot trust them.” Additionally, if this fight goes on for an exceedingly long time it can lead to serious financial strains on the upstart brand if they want to continue to duke it out.
In order to avoid a protracted battle, an upstart brand may forego direct comparative advertising and instead employ a more subtle, indirect approach. The key to this method is not to directly mention the competitor by name but to allude to them so that most people experiencing the ad can easily recognize the competitor being targeted.
This is the approach being used by Taco Bell as they take on McDonald’s. As discussed in this USA Today story, Taco Bell has launched ads that are unmistakably directed to McDonald’s, but are doing so without directly mentioning the fast food leader by name. Well, sort of not mentioning them. The ad presents 25 men named Ronald McDonald, who sing the praises of Taco Bell’s new breakfast menu.
At this point, it is not clear how McDonald’s will respond. A search of the U.S. trademark database shows that McDonald’s has trademarked various terms using the Ronald McDonald name, including one from 1967. But whether they will attempt obtain a cease-and-desist order claiming trademark infringement is unlikely as this seems to be more along the lines of being a parody than an intentional infringement.