Written by Rohit Nautiyal | Updated: Feb 28 2012, 10:28am hrs
Launched last year, apparel brand United Colors of Benetton's 'Unhate' campaign created a global stir by releasing doctored pictures of world leaders, such as US president Barack Obama, Chinese president Hu Jintao, French president Nicholas Sarkozy, Germany chancellor Angela Merkel, caught in a lip lock. One of the advertisements in the series showed Pope Benedict XVI kissing Ahmed-al-Tayeb, the grand sheikh of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo. The ad was criticised by the Vatican and Benetton immediately withdrew the ad without any fuss. For it had achieved what it wanted to through the campaign, that is, catching people's attention.

While Benettons Unhate campaign originated in the West, things are not very different back home. Taking a dig at rival Hero MotoCorp, automaker Bajaj Auto has launched a television commercial that tells the story of consumers who wanted to buy Discover, a Bajaj brand but settled for a bike from Hero's stable for some absurd reasons. The ad plays on how Hero, after its break up with global partner Honda, is devoid of the right technology to maintain its leadership in the two-wheeler segment. Likewise, consumer products maker Hindustan Unilever (HUL) has revived its age-old rivalry with Procter & Gamble (P&G) in the detergent segment. A new print ad from HUL claims consumers can get more quantity of its detergent Rin at a lesser price in comparison with P&G's Tide.

Catching attention through shocking advertisements is an old trick used by marketers but some brands in the recent past have tried pushing the boundaries even further by either coming up with morbid creatives, or using controversial subjects in their story-line or making a direct and unambiguous assault on their rivals. While some call it the need to break the clutter in a world where consumers have a million stimuli waiting, others see it as a phase in a brands life when its hit by a creative drought. The brands in question, indeed, have a different take on the issue.

In the Unhate campaign, the pictures alone convey a strong message that reaches even people who can't read, says Alessandro Benetton, executive deputy chairman, Benetton Group. The campaign highlights key figures in the history of our times, be they men or women. And their kisses are symbolic, what they are saying is: I don't hate you, even if your opinion is different from mine, he adds.

While Hero has not reacted to Bajaj's dig so far, P&G has filed a complaint and Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) is looking into the matter. Comparative advertising can be done as long as it does not denigrate the other brand in question, says Alan Colaco, secretary general, ASCI.

English dailies The Times of India (ToI) and The Hindu seem to be enjoying a higher brand recall these days, thanks to their advertisements. It all started four years ago when ToI entered the country's southern print market with the launch of its Chennai edition. Around that time, the city was full of hoardings with messages from both the publications. While 'If it's Chennai, it's The Hindu' was the claim made by the incumbent, the ToI painted the metro red with its message -- 'The Times of India - Changing Tunes'. The battle for leadership soon got fierce with ToI taking a potshot at The Hindu in a television commercial aired last year in Chennai. Taking a jibe at The Hindu's style of reporting, the campaign urged readers to get rid of the boring news that puts one to sleep and wake up to the 'Times'. This was followed by The Hindu retaliating with a campaign titled 'Stay ahead of the 'Times' meant to hit its rival where it hurt the most by projecting it as a non-serious newspaper. The Hindu campaign was rolled out across the country and was much talked about in the industry.

Not ready to give up, ToI countered The Hindu campaign with a new ad in its Chennai edition in which it extended a backhanded compliment to the competition, read The Hindu, for employing former ToI employees as its CEO and news editor. The Hindu, however, doesn't seem to be in a mood to take this fight further. I don't think their campaigns are in good taste ...but it's they (ToI) who started it all, says Suresh Srinivasan, vice-president, advertising, The Hindu Group.

Rahul Kansal, chief marketing officer, Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd, the owner of ToI, says the ads were not meant to lock horns with the rival but only to highlight what set the brand apart from the rival. We are not here to settle any disputes or wash dirty linen as these things can alienate readers. At the same time, every brand has the right to express what sets it apart," he says.