"Most people will tell you it's because of the economy," says Ms. York. "There are fewer discretionary dollars out there, and you've got to sharpen up your elbows."
Of course, those elbows are covered in bubble wrap for the sake of public image. For instance, companies and advertisers prefer to label such campaigns "comparative advertising," which may seem euphemistic when the comparisons portray competitors in a bad light. To soften that blow, broadsides against another product tend to be lighthearted or couched in humor. A Campbell's ad, for example, has a caption above a can of Progresso that says, "Made with MSG," whereas its own Select Harvest is "Made with TLC."
"Comparative advertising seemed a great fit for this," says Anthony Sanzio, a spokesperson for Campbell Soup Co. "If you've looked at some of the print executions and some of the TV, it tries to have a bit of a sense of humor and a light note. I'm not sure our competitor would agree."
Indeed, Progresso was not amused. The brand, which is owned by General Mills, quickly retorted with an ad that tallied up the number of different Campbell's soups that contain MSG.
"We felt the advertising was disingenuous," says Tom Forsythe, vice president of corporate communications at General Mills. "We knew that Campbell's soups contained MSG, but the positioning of the advertising on this particular line [Select Harvest] … seemed to ignore the other soups that Campbell's also produces."
If Progresso's riposte is successful, Campbell's souped-up campaign may well backfire.
Unfortunately, the public jousting between two companies runs the larger risk of reminding consumers that many canned soups include MSG.