The harsh political season has spawned a new round of attack ads from marketers. Campbell's and Progresso are sparring over MSG. Dunkin' is doing the taste-test thing to Starbucks. And in the best campaign of the genre, Apple continues to attack Microsoft.

Who should attack and when?

In general, the leader should never attack or name the competition. Instead the leader should promote the category. By attacking a competitor or responding to an attack ad, the leader only legitimizes the competition and the existence of a choice. Neither is good.

If under attack, a leader should instead address any problems with PR. Never with advertising. When Apple says consumers are frustrated with Vista in its advertising, Microsoft shouldn't run ads saying everybody loves Vista.

For two simple reasons. 1) everybody doesn’t like Vista and everybody knows that and 2) Even if they did, any message from Microsoft is not credible because it is self-serving.

Microsoft needs to first fix Vista. Then they need PR to talk about how Vista is fixed. Then they can run advertising saying Vista is king.

The brand that has the best chance to pull off a successful attack ad strategy is a strong number-two brand. A well funded number-two brand positioned as the opposite of the leader can use a targeted attack to gain attention and create controversy. Hopefully, the competition will respond which only gives the attack more legitimacy.

Let’s look at some classic attacks and lessons learned.

Dunkin

Dunkin' Donuts attacks Starbucks

Just this month, Dunkin' Donuts woke up to the fact that Starbucks with 11,000 outlets has taken over as the King of Coffee. The 55-year-old brand is launching an aggressive campaign taking on Starbucks over taste. DunkinBeatStarbucks.com promotes a double blind survey that shows consumers prefer Dunkin' coffee to Starbucks 54% to 39%.

There are two problems with this research. One, the survey compares the old Starbucks brew to Dunkin', not the new milder Pike's Place Roast introduced with much fanfare earlier this year. Second, it is too late. Had Dunkin' done this years ago when Starbucks was first moving into its territory, it might have made sense.

Today, Starbucks is too big and too strong. And Dunkin' is too small and too weak.

Miller lite

Miller Lite attacks Bud Light

When the Atkins low-carb craze swept across the county, it seemed that every brand was suddenly carb counting from low-carb ketchup to bun-less burgers at Burger King.

In one of the most successful carb attacks of the era, Miller Lite pointed out a striking fact that few consumers ever noticed. Miller Lite has 2.6 carbs per bottle. Bud Light has 6.6 carbs.

Who would have thought beer guzzling frat boys would care, but suddenly it was big news. The ads were simple and clear. Bud Light had almost three times the carbs of Miller Lite. WOW.

What made the Miller campaign successful was the fact that Budweiser fought back. They tried to joke about all the exercise one might need to do to burn the extra 4 carbohydrates.

Compounding Budweiser's problem was the fact that its sister brand, Michelob Ultra, was touting itself as an ultra low carb brew. So what is it Bud? Do carbs matter or not?

Bud should have ignored the attacks, hoping that the low-carb craze wasn't going to last (it didn’t.) Miller should have kept up the attacks anyway knowing they were on to something, however small. Unfortunately for them, Miller moved on to the ridiculous Man Laws campaign.

Scope

Scope attacks Listerine

This is a good clean fight that has built two powerful brands. A good attack always leaves a valid and reasonable position for the opponent. Listerine vs. Scope is the best example of this.

Listerine invented the mouthwash category over 120 years ago. As one of the first prescription products to go over the counter it was very successful. Over the years Listerine effectively used advertising to expand the mouthwash category by introducing things like halitosis into consumers' vernacular.

Listerine also took a strong negative (bad taste) and used it to its advantage by proudly touting how the bad taste was killing the germs. And a brilliant slogan: "The taste you hate, twice a day."

Except for Scope, all the competition copied Listerine with their own bad-tasting mouthwash brands. Scope attacked Listerine on taste. Scope, the good tasting mouthwash, said people who used Listerine had medicine breath. Yuck!

Two strong positions, two strong brands.

Pepsi

Pepsi-Cola attacks Coca-Cola.

In the early 1980's, Pepsi was on a roll. The Pepsi Generation and Pepsi Challenge taste test where so successful that for a time Pepsi outsold Coke in the supermarket. The slightly sweeter taste of Pepsi performed well in blind one-sip taste tests and the test were a home run in the Pepsi Challenge advertisments. The new generation idea also positioned the taste of Pepsi as what the kids of today preferred.

For awhile Coke took it; then they snapped. Coke put out ads with Bill Cosby defending the not too sweet taste of Coke. But what the Pepsi attacks were really eating away at was the egos of Coca-Cola's leaders. So Coke did the now unthinkable. They changed their secret formula and reformulated Coke to basically win in blind taste tests. Coke made sure it tasted better by doing over 200,000 of its own blind taste tests which proved that New Coke tasted better than Pepsi.

Of course, nobody drinks anything blind. Every consumer drinks the name on the label whether they can see it or not. Less than three months later, Coca-Cola was forced to bring back the original formula. And New Coke was left for the history books.

It just goes to show you. If responding to an attack is a bad idea, changing your product is disastrous. Just think if Listerine suddenly tasted great! Actually they tried that with Listerine Cool Mint, which wasn’t a good direction either.

Apple-PC-Ads 

Apple attacks Microsoft.

With over 90% market share, Microsoft's long monopoly over the operating system market makes them an easy target for focused attacks. In an industry where geeks are good, Bill Gates has been the ultimate geek as well as becoming the richest man in the world.

Apple, on the other hand, has always been about cool. When the competition had names like Commodore Pet and TRS-80, Apple pulled ahead with simple designs and strong branding starting with its simple name.

The success of the iPod and now the iPhone brought Apple back from the brink. At a time when Microsoft let its guard down, Apple moved in. But let's not forget that Apple still only has a tiny share of the PC market.

That said, Apple has made a lot of waves over the years with its "Mac vs. PC" advertising.

First of all, they have been consistent. Repeating the same simple message with the same look over and over again makes for effective and memorable advertising. Second, the ads didn't tell people anything they don't know already.

You can’t use advertising to inform consumers or to the change the perception of your brand. You can only use advertising to accelerate your success by reinforcing ideas already in the mind.

Consumers already thought Apple was cool. Consumers already were frustrated with Microsoft. The ads just remind us of that fact. And they remind us there indeed is a choice.

Like Coca-Cola, Microsoft clearly got its feeling hurt by all the Apple love and finally said enough is enough. And like Coca-Coca, they are foolishly responding to the Apple attack ads. This fall Microsoft launched a massive $300 million dollar ad campaign. I’m just waiting for New Vista to be introduced.

In Microsoft's first ads, Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld got together and did nothing. It was not funny. They ended up looking like two out-of-touch middle-age rich white guys. Not a good message.

Then Microsoft followed that up with the "I’m a PC" ads showing people all around the world using a PC. They just don't get it. People use a PC because they have to; people use a Mac because they want to.

Obama-change

Obama attacks everybody and wins.

A successful attack has to be big enough, bold enough, credible enough and consistent enough to succeed.

Take the Obama brand. For almost two years, Obama has been on the attack with his consistent message of "change" while first Hillary and now McCain keep trying to reformulate in an attempt to compete. Not a good strategy.

Tonight Obama will air a 30-minute commercial. This makes good marketing sense. The time to pile on with advertising is when you are ahead in the game. When you are behind and have a weak brand, advertising won't do you any good and may even make you look desperate.

So even if McCain had the money and even if he had a terrific 30 minute commercial, it wouldn't help him win the election. Brand first, advertising second.

Hail Mary passes only work in football.