Editor's note: Jerry Thomas is president and chief executive of Decision Analyst Inc., an Arlington, Texas, research firm. 

Senior executives are competitive types, typically, and want to confront the competition head-on. Their mantra seems to be “Let’s drop a bomb down the market leader’s smokestack” by a frontal attack with comparative advertising claims. “Let’s advertise that our product is preferred by consumers two-to-one over the market leader’s brand.”

This type of bravado appeals especially to senior marketing executives, who see it as a great way to gain market share at the expense of a hated rival. The senior vice president (SVP) of marketing calls in his consumer insights team and says, “We want hard evidence, proof, that our product is preferred over the market leader’s product two-to-one. This is a rush project, of course, so get to work.”

The first question to ponder: Is it a good idea to make a head-to-head comparative claim against a competitor? First, consumers tend to think that brand-to-brand comparisons are in poor taste, unfair and unsportsmanlike, so it’s possible the comparative claim could backfire. Second, consumers are often skeptical of comparative claims in advertising and tend to discount them. Third, it’s possible that your great head-to-head comparison claim will be remembered as advertising for the better-known competitive brand. Fourth, the competitive brand’s management team might take offense at your advertising claim and file a nasty lawsuit.

So, before your marketing executives rush off to create that great head-to-head commercial, a recommended best practice is to test a number of different advertising claims or messages to see which types of claims resonate with your target audience. Chances are you will find claims better than the brand-versus-brand comparisons. However, there’s usually no time for such claims-screening, because in today’s fast-paced, th...