FORUM: Why media owners use comparative advertising - Radio 3, that noted Rottweiler of the media marketplace, has been biting the ankles of Classic FM. Classic is not amused. Should we be surprised that the Radio 3 promotion at issue is blatant knocking

As 75-year-olds go, Auntie is a pretty aggressive old soul. They’re obviously putting something disagreeable in the cocoa at Broadcasting House. The BBC is not only talking tough on the world stage - aiming to take on the likes of CNN and NBC in the global news arena - but is also throwing its weight about in its own backyard. It’s continuing to use cross-promotional leverage to build its magazine empire and is making things so hot for ITV in the television market that the network is seeking protective intervention from the Independent Television Commission.

As 75-year-olds go, Auntie is a pretty aggressive old soul. They’re

obviously putting something disagreeable in the cocoa at Broadcasting

House. The BBC is not only talking tough on the world stage - aiming to

take on the likes of CNN and NBC in the global news arena - but is also

throwing its weight about in its own backyard. It’s continuing to use

cross-promotional leverage to build its magazine empire and is making

things so hot for ITV in the television market that the network is

seeking protective intervention from the Independent Television

Commission.



Last week, Classic FM was the latest to feel aggrieved, following what

it claimed was a mauling at Auntie’s hands. Classic FM claimed a BBC

promo for Radio 3 now running is ’an obvious criticism of Classic FM and

a breach of fair advertising’.



The spot shows an actor repeating ad infinitum the ’to be or not to be’

line from Hamlet, the suggestion being that Classic only plays easily

digestible babyfood helpings of orchestral music while Radio 3, as the

promo’s endline puts it, ’gives you more than just the famous bits’.



According to Classic, not only is the BBC abusing its position as a

public service broadcaster by using its airtime to attack a commercial

rival, but is also guilty of indulging in the thoroughly ugly business

of knocking copy. A BBC statement disagrees, stating: ’This campaign is

about the brand values of Radio 3, not knocking Classic FM.’



Nonsense, is the only polite answer to that. This is surely blatant,

rather clumsy, knocking copy - although some believe that knocking copy

is, by its very nature, clumsy. That doesn’t stop media owners indulging

in it - and the media sector clearly has a worse record than most

advertising categories. The most blatant offender is the newspaper

industry, whose brawls often spill over from marketing activity into the

courts and the Houses of Parliament.



Why do media owners find knocking copy so irresistible? Does it actually

work? Surely there’s a better way? Murray Dudgeon, the managing director

of Classic FM, doesn’t want to comment directly on the Radio 3 spat, but

he does see how things can get overheated, especially when media owners

are trying to impress the advertising industry.



’It is worth bearing in mind the media market’s obsession with numbers

and performance. There is a focus on growth and competitive comparisons.

People are always fighting to show they’ve achieved what they said they

were going to.’



That is changing rapidly, Dudgeon argues. The focus of the media

community is now on more long-term strategic planning issues. ’Most

people agree the future will be all about strong media brands that have

a clear position in the marketplace. It’s something all media owners

realise when they look at expanding or extending on to the Internet.



’There will have to be much more of a focus on what the pay-off is for

viewers or listeners when they interact with media brands in particular

ways. I would argue that we’re seeing how the companies that focus on

the pay-off are already reaping the rewards.’



One agency that has worked with many media owners, including the classic

brand campaign - ’It is. Are you?’ - for the Independent’s launch, is

Saatchi & Saatchi. As Adam Crozier, its joint managing director, points

out, the problem is that many media owners don’t see their products as

brands. ’They have a very short-term view and what happens is that they

constantly attempt to steal the floating voter from each other. Long

term, it doesn’t really work.’



This is a well-rehearsed argument and as always the exceptions to this

rule - like the Economist or Channel 4 or the Guardian - stand out a

mile.



But the sector never seems to listen to its critics. Crozier reckons

that’s about to change. ’Newspapers or television stations or whatever

are powerful brands. They’re also media-worthy in themselves and they

generate a lot of comment. So what often happens is that if you are not

crystal clear about what your brand is, it will be left to others to say

what it is.



You will have to react to that and the process will be somewhat out of

your control.’



The Economist is almost universally cited as the media property that

gets it right consistently. So what’s its secret? Nicole Masters,

account director on the Economist account at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO,

says it helps to work with a confident marketing department. She

comments: ’There are circumstances where knocking copy is appropriate

but the great risk is that you are, by definition, admitting that you

have competition. There is a virtue in rising above that. The whole

style of the Economist as a publication is about being authoritative and

that does have implications for the way it conducts itself

generally.’



But even Masters can understand how a more bruising approach might seem

attractive. ’The media business is so incestuous and, in the newspaper

business especially, everything is so much more personal.’



Which is probably getting pretty close to the root of the problem. Many

fmcg sectors see some pretty ferocious tactical manoeuvring, including

price wars and aggressive promotional activity. But media is blighted by

the yah-boo tendency. It takes itself very seriously. It takes

everything to heart. There’s an institutional readiness to bristle at

the merest suggestion of a slight - real or imagined.



Stephen Palmer, the marketing director of the Guardian and Observer,

says that’s a fact of life in the newspaper business: ’It’s always been

that way - it’s always been about scooping each other and getting the

product on the streets faster, whatever it takes. It’s ingrained.’



Palmer certainly concedes that in its milder variants, comparative

marketing is a legitimate part of the armoury. ’We are all about quality

and developing consumer benefit - and in some aspects of our marketing,

like direct mail, we will draw attention to other titles where that

isn’t so apparent. But it’s very much about compare and contrast - we

have a stronger and more consistent commitment to branding than most.’



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