It may look like just a regular couch - all bland upholstery and boxy shapes - but beneath its springs and stuffing, Canada's two largest telecoms have been sharpening their knives.
When Rogers Communications Inc. launched a campaign in May featuring a couch, half red and half blue, where customers were shown how much money they could save by switching away from its competitor, Bell Canada decided it wouldn't take the attack lying down.
It launched its own ads with a nearly identical couch, the blue side extended to imply it could provide more savings and better services.
"It was a multimedia response. Print, direct mail, all using that couch imagery. Responding directly," said Rick Seifeddine, senior vice-president of branding at Bell.
The ads "show off what the platform does best," he said. "It can do hand-to-hand knife combat in the street."
Call it Mixed Martial Advertising: companies going head to head, attacking each other's images. It's not a new marketing concept, but lately it has been a powerful trend, and more competitors are learning to fight back.
A doughy, bespectacled man in slacks and an ill-fitting brown suit jacket waves at the camera.
"Hello," he says. "I'm a PC."
You might be expecting the usual follow-up: a puppy-eyed hipster in jeans introducing himself as a Mac. But instead of being ridiculed by this passive-aggressive whippersnapper, as in the famous ad campaign launched by Apple Inc. three years ago and now in its umpteenth version, the PC smiles amicably and continues: "I've been made into a stereotype."
That was almost a year ago. Since then, Microsoft Corp. has continued its campaign to reshape the image of the Windows platform.
"Apple had done such a good job, you felt a little embarrassed taking that PC laptop out of your bag," said Rob Reilly of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which developed the Microsoft ads. "It's like, if we could just take this and reverse it, and hug them to death, if you will."
The "hugs" have continued, whether it's a perky redhead mooning over her new PC laptop, or a nauseatingly cute four-year-old uploading pictures of her fish, Microsoft is doing everything to portray its product as inexpensive and user-friendly. The campaign won a silver Clio, a modest achievement next to Apple's pile of industry honours, but Mr. Reilly says he's happy to have been able to respond.
A representative for Apple said the company does not comment on its marketing or advertising strategies.
Mr. Reilly said Apple's tactics have become more aggressive and negative. Initially, CP+B was tempted to steer clear of bickering back.
That might have been the right instinct, said Scott Hawkins, a professor who studies advertising effectiveness at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. Retaliatory ad campaigns run the risk of being seen by consumers as corporate sniping, he said.
"It's almost a train wreck mentality, when two competitors start battling publicly," Prof. Hawkins said. "All of a sudden, these companies are throwing mud at each other."
There's also a danger of brand confusion when campaigns address each other too directly. Prof. Hawkins points to the example of the cola wars. In the early '90s, a series of ads featured Ray Charles extolling the virtues of Diet Pepsi. During one of these paeans, he picks up a can of Diet Coke and takes a sip. Even though the famously blind musician can't see the can, he turns off camera and says, "All right, who's the wise guy?"
The message is pro-Pepsi, but the imagery may not be, Prof. Hawkins said.
"The competitor is on the screen for a big part of the commercial," he said. "He's holding it up to the camera. You get this misidentification all the time with these back and forth campaigns."
The Microsoft campaign avoided that trap by simply alluding to the Apple brand instead of showing it directly, said David Webster, the general manager of brand marketing with Microsoft.
"The only people who recognize the engineer as being a proxy are by definition people who've seen Apple's ads," he said. "So it avoids the problem most people worry about with this kind of thing, which is that you're inadvertently going to increase awareness."
The technique has been used before. Laundry detergent ads will often wink at the competitors' identities by featuring packages of a similar colouring and then having their brand outperform those products.
Rogers' initial campaign followed the same model. The red and blue colouring of the couch was meant to send a clear message to customers.
"The couch is only part of the story," said Phil Hartling, vice-president of consumer services for Rogers Cable. "The other part is the home phone challenge, which leads you to a site. Customers can go online and compare for themselves." Since the couch ads began on May 18, he said, 150,000 people have gone to that site.
Bell's response aimed to turn that attack on its head.
"That campaign was taking the visual element of that couch, and reinterpreting for the consumer the Rogers couch," said David Moore, the president and CEO of Leo Burnett, the agency behind Bell's ads. "We used what had already been set up and got consumers to look at that equation in a different way."
Prof. Hawkins says that message may have gotten lost in the fight.
"I'm looking at a Bell page. Rogers is on the page twice in big letters, and Bell is there once," he said. Prof. Hawkins also points to what experts call source derogation: back and forth attacks can create skepticism if consumers think companies aren't playing fair.
But Bell says its ads were an appropriate response that reflects its new brand model.
"This is a new Bell. We're a much nimbler, leaner, faster organization than before," said Wade Oosterman, the company's chief brand officer. "We can respond quickly when someone takes a shot at us."
The response campaign was up within days of Rogers' ads, he said, a sharp difference from the pace of the industry 10 years ago, when lag time between campaigns was longer.
It's also short-lived: According to Rogers, their couch campaign will be ending within the next few weeks.
Once that happens, Bell will have no need for its response ads. But both companies will continue trying to woo customers to their side, and that means that even if the couches are headed for the scrapyard, the knives are likely to stay out.