A major dilemma faced by salespeople in a competitive market is how they describe their competition to customers.  Too harsh, it’s sour grapes. Too meek, you risk losing control of the conversation.

I’ve always found it best to answer that question with a reasoned, light-hearted approach that draws the differences between you and them and reiterates the answer to “why you.”

Our ‘Millennial Voice’ in residence, Mary Ann Rogers seems to agree. Here’s her entry regarding negative advertising:

I have always hated the months leading up to the presidential campaigns. It’s not enough that we are bombarded to the hilt with slogans, bumper stickers, commercials on radio and TV, print ads, and yard signs begging for our vote, but add mudslinging to the mix and I’m ready to scream.

Maybe it’s my southern roots, but my mother always told me, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” And I usually agree! Worry about yourself, I say and quit squawking about the other guy.

But I suppose negative campaigns get results; just look at how many politicians are using them. But do they work outside of politics in the world of everyday people and consumerism? Can negative campaigns have a positive effect on your audience?

Let’s look at Apple and McDonalds. These two industry giants are currently running negative campaigns, poking fun and shining an unfavorable light on their competitors.

I’m sure you’ve all seen the recent “Get a Mac” commercials featuring actor Jason Long as the hip and cool Mac, and comedian John Hodgman as the stuffy, out of touch PC. (Click here to view.) Not so subtly, PC always has a problem with his operating system or hardware and Mac’s life is always wonderfully easy. They wisely infuse humor into each commercial, so as not to anger or offend us PC users.

I found an article on Bnet.com recently that says Apple spent roughly $486 million dollars on their advertising in 2008 alone. Wow - that’s more than the gross national product of Liberia. But was it worth it? Absolutely.

Because Microsoft waited until two years after Apple launched their negative ads to begin their own retaliation campaign, Apple was able to capitalize big time. The article claims that not only did Apple raise their ranking in the U.S. (from fourth to third this year for computer manufacturers) but they also increased their market share. The gamble paid off!

Incidentally, Microsoft’s ultimate response to Apple’s ad came with their “I’m a PC” commercials. (after the ill-fated Bill Gates/Jerry Seinfeld spots and their “blind test” Sierra operating system effort.) They feature dozens of people from around the world and all walks of life, claiming that they are not stereotypes, they are PCs and that’s ok. Not nearly as humorous as Apple’s commercials, but they get the message across. (Click here to view.)

Just this morning while I was reading the news online, making sure the world hadn’t frozen solid during the night, I saw an interesting article on CNN.com. McDonald’s has taken a note from Apple and launched their own mini-negative campaign aimed directly at Starbucks. 140 billboards have been strategically positioned throughout the city of Seattle, Starbucks’ homeland, with saying like “Large is the new grande,” and “Four bucks is dumb.” (Click here for full article.)

And while McDonald’s claims the billboards are all in fun, Starbucks is bristling at the competition, calling into question McDonald’s credibility. Ouch.  Since the campaign has only just begun, and will only be focused in Seattle, we won’t know for some time if it is effective or futile, but it will be interesting to find out.

Until then, I will continue to type away on my PC at the local Starbucks and get my kicks out of McDonald’s and Apple’s successfully humorous jabs at their competition.

Posted by: Steve Banis and Mary Ann Rogers