Picture: Leon Nicholas

South African companies can’t take pot shots at their competitors in their advertising – the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa’s advertising code forbids them to attack, discredit or disparage their competitors’ products, services or adverts, directly or indirectly.

But that doesn’t stop them from trying to get away with it, which makes for very interesting reading in the rulings which the ASA publishes on its website: www.asasa.org.za

Comparisons are not a complete no-no. Adverts may use comparisons to highlight a weakness in an industry or product, as long as the information is factual and in the public interest.

In responding to competitor complaints, the respondents usually claim that they weren’t having a go at the other company: it was just a coincidence that they used that company’s colour to depict a product or service which was inferior.

In its “fairy tale castle” advert for Handy Andy Cream, Unilever used an image of a man trying to clean a pot with a product represented by a green bottle. He fails and flings the bottle on to a heap of other discarded bottles.

Reckitt Benckiser lodged a competitor complaint against the advert, saying that its Dettol Multi Surface Cream cleaner was the only cream cleaner on the market that’s packaged in a green bottle similar to the one used in the advert, and that clearly this was done intentionally, which amounted to a “direct attack” on Dettol Cream and other household cleaners.

Responding, Unilever said that before launching the advert in South Africa, two sets of consumer research were conducted before the company was aware of the launch of Dettol Cream in a green bottle.

It claimed that it had no knowledge of the launch of Dettol Cream or of the green bottle, and that the bottle in its advert was a “generic bottle”, representing the effort taken by the characters in the advert to clean.

In its ruling, published last week, the ASA Directorate said while it was “not necessarily convinced” that consumers would identify the green bottle as Dettol Cream Cleaner, it was interesting to note that Dettol appears to be the only product of this type that comes in a bottle that is a similar shade of green to the bottle used in the advert.

Unilever claimed that its Handy Andy product was tested against the leading cream cleaners in South Africa and did indeed perform best, and submitted its confidential study results to the Directorate.

But the Directorate rejected this “evidence”, saying that the independent expert Unilever had used to evaluate it, had the academic qualifications but not the necessary work experience to be regarded as an expert in the field of household cleaning.

In short, the Directorate ordered that the claims – that the Handy Andy cream product was the best cleaner – were unsubstantiated and disparaging of its competitors, and ordered that they be withdrawn.

Radio

A week earlier, the Directorate deliberated on the complaint by Vodacom against Telkom’s “Unlimited” radio and TV adverts for its “mobile plan”.

You know the one – a chap talking to his mate about how he pays R2 000 a month to call as much as he wants on his “limitless” contract.

The mate mocks his use of the word “limitless”, saying it’s “not even a real word”, and then says Telkom Mobile offers him “unlimited” calls to cellphones or landlines for R1 199 a month.

The adverts also included a reference to unlimited “service” and data.

Vodacom complained that the advert misled consumers into believing that its “Limitless” Red VIP package was comparable with Telkom’s “Unlimited” product, which wasn’t true, as the latter only offered unlimited calls to all networks, whereas Vodacom’s included limitless “Anytime” minutes, SMSs and 1500MB of data every month.

The main crux of Vodacom’s complaint was that by mentioning the R2 000 a month cost (Vodacom’s costs R1 999 a month); using the word limitless and dressing the one character in an all-red outfit – Vodacom’s signature colour – it was clear that Telkom intended to make a direct comparison to Vodacom’s product.

Responding, Telkom denied any similarity between its package – which offered unlimited calls only – and Vodacom’s Limitless Red offering.

The mention of other services didn’t relate specifically to the “unlimited” offer, Telkom said, and the fact that the character being mocked was wearing red was “merely coincidence” and – I especially love this part – was the colour scheme that the advertising agency had available on the day the advert was shot. As if anything in advertising is that random.

Unsurprisingly, the ASA Directorate did not buy that, nor any part of Telkom’s response, in fact.

“The Directorate does not believe that the reference to “limitless”, the specific indication of a monthly price of R2 000 and, as is the case in the television commercial, the fact that the “limitless” character is wearing an entirely red outfit, are all coincidental and inconsequential.

“Even if one were to assume that it was mere coincidence, the commercials themselves are somewhat illogical in claiming that “limitless” is not even a real word, when in fact, it is a legitimate word cited in most dictionaries.”

Well, exactly. What an ill conceived campaign.

“In essence,” said the Directorate in its ruling, “what the respondent has done, is set up a comparison with an unnamed service provider, and imply that its own offering is superior because it is cheaper, and uses better grammar.

“The products are, however, not comparable, as one cannot make a like-for-like comparison.”

The adverts were found to be misleading and ordered to be withdrawn.