Oman gets its first taste of ambush advertising as rival companies trade blows reports Srinivasan Iyer

It all started in early February with an innocuous ad - 'Switch to Red' - appearing in the newspapers here. It was clearly a teaser, as it did not carry the name of the advertiser or the product. The ad was released again the following day, and yet again. A certain buzz was building up. People started wondering what the product could be. It was even discussed in cyberspace, with bloggers taking up the subject fervently. Given the limited information, or shall we say zilch, the bloggers were clueless. Their guesses were all over the place and the possibilities ranged from a new telecom operator to the national football team to a new bank and even Red Bull.


Initially the teaser campaign lived up to its billing of generating a certain excitement, but as the campaign dragged on, the momentum began to dull. Then suddenly out of the blue, there was a Nissan ad in the newspapers - 'SHIFT to Nissan'. Furious at their ad being hijacked from right under their nose, TBWA Zeenah, the creators of the 'Switch to Red' campaign, literally saw red. The ad agency brought out full-page ads in several newspapers screaming, 'Beware of Cheap Imitations', lambasting competitors.
Even before the market could recover from what was clearly the first instance of ambush advertising in Oman, Mazda brought a new twist to the campaign with its 'True Red' ad, coinciding with Valentine's Day.
Finally, after more than a fortnight, when the campaign had all but fizzled out, Mitsubishi Motors and TBWA Zeenah put their hands up and ended the agony. While Zeenah officials did not want to comment on the issue, Zubair Automotive, the dealers of Mitsubishi, could not resist taking a swipe at all those who tried to hijack its campaign. In a press release announcing the launch of Mitsubishi's new marketing campaign, Bob Seshadri, group marketing manager, Zubair Automotive, said, It was great to see that this unique 'tease-and-reveal' style campaign was so impactful that some of our competitors resorted to misleading consumers into thinking it was theirs. They were obviously worried."

Timed ambush
However, the general consensus among the advertising fraternity is that Mitsubishi and TBWA Zeenah were asking for trouble by stretching the teaser campaign for too long. The timing of Nissan's 'SHIFT to Nissan' ad in the newspapers was such that many readers mistook it for the original. Perhaps this was what got Mitsubishi's goat. "It's all about building effective communication. We saw an opportunity. We stuck to our brand's (Nissan) ad lines and successfully achieved what we had set out to do. We definitely increased the brand recall," says Puneet Pruthi, head, account planning, Asha Advertising & Market-ing Agency, which handles the account.
"Well, it was noticed. Customers talked about it. Wouldn't anyone in the business like people to talk about their brand? Purpose achieved. Period," says an industry veteran, who does not want to be named. Seshadri says 'Switch to Red' is their way of creating a unique position in the market which will be at the heart of all future customer communications. "Like the 'Just do it' campaign for Nike, we hope it will become synonymous with Mitsubishi."
Meanwhile, Annurag Chawla, head of marketing and communication, Towell Auto Centre, dealers for Mazda, clears the air regarding the 'Switch to True Red' campaign. "The ad was created and ready for launch much before the Mitsubishi campaign. An outsider would think that it was meant to take a swipe at our competitors. But it is a continuation of our 'Come, fall in love!' and Love at first drive!' ads launched last year in the build-up to Valentine's Day. This year's 'True Red' campaign actually refers to the colour red in our shade card."

Changing trend? Not exactly
Does this in any way indicate the start of an aggressive advertising trend? Many in the industry feel that this was a one-off incident. "The success of such activities depends on the market environment and media penetration. We lag behind in both. However, this could change the way teasers are executed," Pruthi says. R Badrinathan of Gulf Designs echoes the sentiment. "I feel this is a 'condom market' - people want to play it safe. The agencies are afraid of upsetting the apple cart, which in turn means losing your business. There is too much safe-plotting and people in the industry are not allowing it to mature."
What happened in Oman was just a sideshow. Insiders say the international ad scene is cutthroat. Survival of the fittest is not a cliché - it is a reality. When one is playing with a client's money, one has to make sure that the advertiser gets maximum exposure for his buck. Ambush advertising has a long legacy. "In my opinion all goes in this business - of course without compromising on the values of the client's brand. Above all, we are in the business to entertain our consumers. If there is anything in the media that makes him look up and say 'wow' or for that matter, 'blimey', I feel your communication has made an impact on the person who matters most: the consumer," says an industry veteran. However, Badrinathan says even though the ads created some excitement and raised a lot of eyebrows, there is unlikely to be a sudden shift in the sales volumes of the car brands in question.
Of all the parties involved - advertisers, agencies, consumers and the media - it is the media that seems to have benefited the most. It provided a neutral battlefield and eventually it was the media houses that laughed all the way to the bank. With the market maturing fast and consumers becoming discerning, we expect a lot more to happen that generates excitement for advertisers and consumers. So next year, when we publish the survey, the ad-spend in the print media should look a lot healthier.


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