In the summer of 2001, the Public Relations Quarterly published an article called ‘Know the power of de-positioning’, by Alan Kelly. In this article, Kelly advocated what he believed to be a viable public relations technique: attacking the opponent (or ‘de-positioning’ him). In de-positioning, marketers’ explicit goal is to strengthen their position by weakening the competition. More innocent efforts include beating opponents to the punch, i.e. rushing products and ideas out before they do. But de-positioning can also mean directly communicating against a competitor and discrediting them (either explicitly or implicitly) when the opportunity arises.
Kelly’s article motivated harsh criticism from communications scholars. In a letter to the editor of Public Relations Quarterly, Michael Ryan, Professor at the University of Houston, commented, “If there were a competition for the worst public relations idea ever, Alan Kelly's de-positioning would win in a walk” (Ryan, 2001, p.12). Ryan dismisses Kelly’s ideas as unethical, illegitimate, and simply ‘bad business’. He claims that, (1) it lowers the moral tone of business, (2) it demeans the entire industry (including oneself), and (3) if exposed, de-positioning efforts will almost certainly provoke consumer outrage and thus turn against the attacker eventually. In closing, Ryan states that, “de-positioning is an idea whose time has not come, and hopefully never will” (2001, p.12). I disagree.
Surely, Kelly’s proposition goes against conventional public relations philosophy. In an ideal world, PR fosters good relationships with all stakeholders, including the competition. Miller and Dinan (2008) point out that “the profession of public relations likes to see itself as a force for good, promoting mutual understanding, positive relationships between publics and wider benefits for society” (p.3). Such conception is honorable. But in the real world, there are always actors who ‘think different’. For evidence, let us turn to the technology industry.
In 1984, IBM was market leader in personal computers. The company was so dominant that it could use its position to progressively force standardization on the industry, causing a wave of bankruptcies among smaller PC producers. This encouraged the Rolling Stone magazine to declare IBM the ‘dark side’ of the technology industry in a story titled ‘The Whiz Kids Meet Darth Vader’ (1984). The ‘whiz kids’ referred to an innovative upstart that would attempt to challenge IBM’s dominance: Apple Computer (now Apple Inc.). The magic bullet that should stop IBM and save the world from standardization was the Macintosh, Apple’s (more advanced) version of the personal computer. For Apple Computer the introduction of the Macintosh was more than just moving the company forward. It was about holding back IBM in an effort to stay alive. A 28-year old Steve Jobs described the launch as “Apple’s do or die” – “if we don’t do this, nobody can stop IBM” (‘The Whiz Kids Meet Darth Vader’, 1984, p.37). IBM needed to be de-positioned.
Three days before the Macintosh hit the stores, the 1984 Super Bowl (an advertising- mega-event-disguised-as-football-match) took place. Apple used this event to orchestrate one of the most famous advertising stunts to date. During one of the breaks, it placed what would later be declared as the greatest commercial of the last fifty years by Advertising Age. Scott (2012) sums up the ad:
“A young woman athlete being chased by faceless storm-troopers raced past hundreds of vacant-eyed workers and hurled a sledgehammer into the image of a menacing voice. A transcendent blast. Then a calm, cultivated speaker assured the astonished multitudes that 1984 would not be like 1984. Macintosh had entered the arena.”
To an informed viewer it becomes obvious that the ad demonizes market leader IBM, placing it in the role of ‘Big Brother’, the totalitarian dictator in Orwell’s dystopia ‘1984’. The Macintosh computer is then framed as a challenge to conformity; its buyers are resistance fighters (Stein, 2002). Apple clearly aimed to de-position its competitor by implicitly attributing to IBM the negative qualities of a totalitarian regime. Such ‘transfer’ essentially reflects basic propaganda technique and is often used in political communication (cf. World Union of Jewish Students, 2002). This is not incidental: essentially, Mac versus PC became an ideological struggle. Scott (2012) observes: “The equation of buying a computer with a revolutionary act is a deft ideological maneuver. In both form and idea, it worked against the myth of IBM, turning the ‘big’ in ‘Big Blue’ into a negative instead of a reassuring positive”.
Did Apple lower the moral tone of business? Did it demean an entire industry, undermining its credibility? Did it provoke outrage, as Ryan’s (2001) criticism would suggest? Certainly, IBM was not pleased: a spokesperson accused Apple of intellectual dishonesty. "What they have managed to do in the advertising is to somehow frame this conflict as a battle for the human soul – which it clearly is not...it's a battle for shelf space" (quoted in Scott, 2012). Yet Apple’s ‘1984’ commercial shows that unorthodox approaches to advertising are by no means uncommon, nor are they unsuccessful. Kelley remarks that effective de-positioning is “less like war and more like sport”; it’s “swift and usually masked” (2001, pp.27-28). In Apple’s case it might really be what kept them alive. If it was not for the cult-like following inspired by the ‘1984’ commercial, the company might have gone under. Apple understood what IBM did not: it is, in fact, a battle for the human soul, not for shelf space.
The ‘1984’ approach worked so well for Apple that it experienced a reprise in 2004. On its 20th anniversary, the ad was rebroadcast. Only this time, it served to de-position another competitor. The arch enemy IBM had lost ground on the market for personal computers, and there was a new nemesis: Microsoft. In fact, Apple dedicated an entire campaign to de-positioning Microsoft. In what Adweek calls the best advertising campaign of the first decade of the new century, Apple systematically took apart Microsoft-operated personal computers feature by feature (Nudd, 2011). In over 66 commercials broadcast over the course of four years (2006-2009), Apple humorously illustrated the competition’s weaknesses, such as liability to viruses, for example. The ‘Get a Mac’ campaign is a brilliant example of more or less overt counter-propaganda, or de-positioning. Several ads explicitly mention Microsoft.
So how can it be that the campaign was so well received, and not, as Professor Ryan’s criticism (2001) would suggest, perceived as unethical behavior? I believe that there are certain conditions under which de-positioning works and some under which it does not: one such condition is a trailing market position. When Apple challenged IBM and Microsoft it was a clear underdog. Scott remarks that – in 1984 – the Apple ethos was revolutionary and ‘counter-cultural’ (2012). People felt sympathetic with Apple; they liked to cheer for the underdog. It is unlikely that either of these campaigns would be greeted with the same enthusiasm today. Apple’s situation has changed considerably in the last five years. In many regards, the company has turned into its own antithesis: its products are now status symbols, manufactured in Chinese sweatshops. Apple has become a part of the system, waiting to be de-positioned by its competitors.
To think that only Apple was guilty of de-positioning the competition would be naïve. In fact, de-positioning seems to be less of an exception, and more of a norm in the technology sector. But it need not always be a full-blown ad campaign, as in the examples above. Sometimes, it can be top management that takes the competition head on. Larry Ellison, co-founder and CEO of Oracle Corporation, one of the world’s leading software firms, does not shy away from taunting competitors publicly. When the eccentric executive joined Twitter about six months ago, his first tweet was a jab at rival software firm SAP: "Oracle's got 100+ enterprise applications live in the #cloud today," Ellison tweeted. "SAP's got nothin' but SuccessFactors until 2020" (Rougeau, 2012).
Ellison is no stranger to publicly moving against the competition. In her book ‘The Oracle of Oracle’ (2002), Florence Stone describes him as ruthless, volatile, impatient and autocratic. Two of his chief business beliefs, according to Stone, are that one must lock in customers, and crush the competition. It seems that a Larry Ellison would worry less about the ethical implications of de-positioning than would Professor Ryan; and Larry Ellison is a practitioner. Why is it that a guy like Larry Ellison can get away with talking trash about the competition? His de-positioning is at times offensive; oftentimes explicit ("Some people built their system with a Flash UI. I won't mention Workday by name", quoted in Moretti, 2012), and with an estimated worth of $41 billion he is not exactly an underdog? Maybe another supporting condition for de-positioning is that it is done with a wink. Ellison is perceived by many as a little crazy, his comments to be taken with a grain of salt; and the press adores him for it. As one journalist puts it, “Larry Ellison has long been the software reporter’s gift that keeps on giving” (Lacy, 2010). But it is not just eccentrics and underdogs who embrace de-positioning as a marketing tool. The stumbling ‘empire’ does too.
Was it successful? I think it was. The public was outraged over Google’s move, and news coverage generally biased against the change (Wyatt and Wingfield, 2012). Microsoft might have actually gained a few subscriptions to its own webmail service, but ultimately that was not important. What really counted was putting a dent in Google’s image. In my opinion, Microsoft’s chief objective was to fuel the negative debate around its competitor; to point the finger and say, ‘Here goes the company that says it doesn’t do evil, doing evil’ – a prime example of de-positioning. Contrary to what Ryan’s (2001) criticism would have you believe, Microsoft’s strike did not turn against them. In fact, Microsoft even got away with following suit! Only a couple of months after bashing its rival for infringing user privacy, Microsoft changed its terms of service agreement in much the same way that Google did. The surprise: nobody really cared; the media neglected the story. Two New York Times editors, who noticed, remarked “As Microsoft Shifts Its Privacy Rules, an Uproar Is Absent” (Wyatt and Wingfield, 2012).
A brief look at marketing communications in the technology industry debunks Ryan’s (2001) assertion that “de-positioning is an idea whose time has not come” (2001, p.12). As the example of Apple’s ‘1984’ commercial demonstrated, not only has its time come, it came long ago. However, while Ryan’s predictions (e.g. that de-positioning would eventually turn against the attacker) were shown to not occur under all circumstances, this does not mean that his criticism was unfounded. While de-positioning is a legitimate device in the marketer’s tool box, Ryan is not entirely wrong – look at the state the technology sector is in. Charles Arthur, who investigated Apple, Google, and Microsoft and their struggle for ruling the internet, declares it a ‘digital war’ (2012). The industry fights not only with more or less explicit bashing of the competition; it is also engorged in a seemingly never-ending struggle of patent lawsuits. To say it with Ryan’s words: “If everyone is out there slinging mud at everyone else, the entire industry is going to get dirty” (2001, p.12). As communicating against competitors becomes business as usual, maybe consumers, too, should start to raise their guard. Activist groups and regulators have long worried about the increasing infringement of consumer rights by technology giants (Hardy, 2012). Surely Larry Ellison would not be afraid to ‘de-position’ his customers either; he supposedly said, "We can't be successful if we don't lie to customers!" (Lacy, 2010).
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