Throwing Shade: The New Reality in Ad/Reputation Management

Published: March 3, 2019  by 

One of the rising trends we’ve seen early in 2019 is major brands taking aim at their competitors as a means to prove their worth to customers. In the past, a little passive aggressive copy would go a long way to intimate superiority over one’s rivals. However, 2019 is potentially ushering in a new age of what is acceptable.

Major brands and Fortune 100 companies now think nothing of attacking their enemies with some snark and on occasion utter bashing reserved for bullies on the playground. Advertising 101 used to preach that brands only had to do the very best job at illustrating their unique selling proposition to succeed, rather than expose flaws in other brands. Marketing guru Neil Patel has elaborated on this: “The factor or consideration presented by a seller as the reason that one product or service is different from and better than that of the competition.”Clearly, we may be moving into a new era where it may become more common to outright slam another brand than explain why your own product or service is great.

Is this the dawn of a new era in advertising or a phase destined to pass soon?

Interestingly enough, the place where this manifested was the arena with the absolute highest stakes for brands in any year, Super Bowl Sunday. There were definitely more ads addressing the past disparity in diversity and a lot of virtue signaling by brands, including the NFL itself. At the same time, there were a lot of brand-on-brand hostilities lobbed across the screens and later on social media. Even though many industry experts predicted a safe batch of ads during the highest cost, highest visibility window of advertising in the world every year, many ads were combative and outwardly negative, casting shade on their peer brands in a direct attack on their quality, ingredients, and even brand aesthetics. The ire could be felt through your screens at home and was more exciting than most of the game!

Nowhere was this more apparent than the winner of the theoretical Super Bowl ad trophy, Bud Light. Bud Light’s ad “Special Delivery” boldly, hilariously attacked peers Miller Light, and Coors Light, and delivered a finishing blow over a series of social media activations that resonated with viewers, according to AdWeek. Even though they nearly fumbled the great opportunity with their equally memorable Game of Thrones crossover ad with HBO, the finishing move was already played. Beer and spirits companies have gone after each other in years past, but by calling out this major ingredient in a time when consumers are more health conscious than ever, Bud Light really drove a stake in the hearts of those other brands. Other major advertisers who took advantage of this tactic with their game day ads included Pepsi, Sprint, T-Mobile, Toyota, and Audi. Even Google went in on its opponents or industry barriers in ads. If you are on the receiving end of this treatment, what do you do about it?

This led to another development: how brands dealt with the shade thrown on them. While fans expressed glee at all the sick burns brands inflicted on each other, others in the industry recoiled. Every major ad campaign also has a digital component and spurred a lot of chatter pro and con about this. Savvy social media teams sprung into action in real-time, capitalizing on the negativity to defend their honor and it paid off. Miller, in particular, hit back at Bud Light with great success, reinforcing its own brand ethos, but not seeming weak or petty with the reply. They took on haters, thanked fans, and had a huge impact on their brand on a day when they did not pay for a Super Bowl ad. Not only did they trumpet their award-winning taste, they zinged back at Bud Light perfectly.

This was followed by a full page ad by Miller hitting back in The New York Times two days later, fighting back in a much more traditional sense, aimed at investors and the industry. Other brands like Coors also took offense and joined in defending themselves, as well as Corn Farmers associations attacking Bud Light over HFCS claims. Still, Miller couldn’t do a better job than having well-staffed agile, global social media team capable of fighting in the trenches for their life. Like most brands with ads during the Super Bowl, the ads are geared at winning over the non-brand-loyalists, but social media can help with retention and in this case, remind them why they are loyal in the first place.

Other brands using social media to defend themselves and cast their own shade instead of sitting back and sipping the tea are the hilarious online presences of Wendy’s, the ever clever Netflix, and Jet-Blu. Time will tell if this will continue to trend or die down soon. One thing is for certain: When brands attack each other, fans love it, since choosing brand politics is one of the things that makes fans into evangelists in the first place. It’s as classic as Coke versus Pepsi or “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC.”