Beat the Bends: A Case for Comparative Advertising

Author: Chrisanne Kouzas. Posted: Oct 12, 2010 (Updated: July 10, 2022)

Nike vs. Reebok, Burger King vs. McDonalds, UPS vs. Fedex: Top brands going head to head with one other using competitive advertising have created legendary marketing campaigns. From competition between Microsoft and Apple, to full on advertising wars between Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, there has been plenty of rivalry and many creative brand wars in recent history.

Comparative advertising is a marketing strategy in which a company’s product or service is presented as superior when compared to a competitor’s.  The most famous example of this is probably the Cola Wars – a long-time rivalry between Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, with competing advertisements going back-and-fourth between the companies comparing the tastes or benefits of one over the other.

Another sector which is famous for using comparative advertising is automotives, with one of the most well-know examples being a hugely successful billboard battle between BMW vs Audi, which took place in California. In the United States, this type of comparative advertising, where you explicitly name your competitors, is legal, and even encouraged. However, this is not the case in all countries.

In South Africa, for example, comparative advertising like this is generally prohibited due to trademark infringement laws and to prevent cosumers from being exposed to misleading claims. However, this legal barrier has not always stopped rival brands from using creative tactics and out-of-the-box thinking to call out their competitors more subtely. And while the rivalry between BMW and Audi captured the public’s attention in the United States, in South Africa, it was rival advertising between BMW and Mercedes that made headlines.

It started in 1990, when Mercedes-Benz created an award-winning advertisiment based on the true story of Christopher White, a man who survived what should have been a fatal car accident after crashing off a cliff on Chapman’s Peak.

Chapman’s Peak is a coastal road in Cape Town, South Africa, considered to be one of the most scenic drives in the world. The road winds through spectacular coastal-mountain scenery, with steep, rocky cliffs sinking into the Atlantic ocean on one side, and high mountains towering over the road on the other side. Despite its beauty, this road is notoriously unsafe to drive on, with 114 sharp, meandering, bends and dangerous blind spots for drivers.

In 1988, Christopher White was driving along Chapman’s Peak. He was tired, took his eyes off the road for a split second, and suddenly found himself plunging 100m off the steep cliffs, onto the sharp rocks below. Miraculously, he not only survived the accident, but crawled out of the wreckage with hardly a scratch on his body. He was told that there were two reasons he survived: 1) He was wearing a seatbelt, and 2) He was driving a Mercedes-Benz.

When Mercedes-Benz heard the news about this near-fatal crash, they felt it stood testament to the superior engineering and safety of their vehicles. They went back to the location of the accident and, using the exact same model car, filmed a TV advertisement telling Christopher White’s story. In the advertisement, we see the car driving along the winding cliffs, and then watch the moment it approaches a bend in the road, missing the turn and crashing down onto the rocks below. The driver emerges, unharmed, and the advertisement ends with the catchphrase “In some accidents, no car could save a life.  In other, only the safest car could.” At the same time, “Mercedes Benz. Engineered like no other car in the world” appears on your television screen.

Soon after the Mercedes-Benz advertisement aired on television in South Africa, BMW responded by creating their own version of the advertisement, showing a BMW driving along the same stretch of road on Chapman’s Peak. Filmed to mimick the Mercedes-Benz advertisement, the viewer sees the BMW driver approach the same bend in the road, but unlike the Mercedes-Benz which plunged off the cliff, the BMW negotiates the bend in the road safely, and continues safely onwards. The advertisement ends with the catchphrase “Doesn’t it make sense to drive a luxury sedan that beats the bends?” – which the viewer hears as “beats the Benz.”

Overnight, the two advertisements became a national talking point in South Africa, creating massive exposure for both compaies. This was not only because of the monumental success of the competing advertisements themselves, but also due to the legal circus and media frenzy that followed, with South Africa’s advertising regulator eventually banning the BMW advertisment from TV, much to the dissapointment of the public. (Links updated in July, 2022).

UPDATE, July 2022:

Much to my surprise, this short blog post I originally wrote for credit in a university course continues to receive attention, and is cited on various other websites. I think this really speaks to the success and infamy of these advertisements, which are still a topic of conversation in South Africa today (considering that the advertisements first aired in 1990, this is a really long time for something to remain in the collective memory of the public).

In 2018, Mercedes Benz launched a new campaign, Mercedes-Benz Presents Return to Chapman’s Peak, with the tagline “watch Christopher White return to Chapman’s Peak 30 years after his famous accident in the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class.” The campaign features documentry-style interviews with Christopher White and various first responders from the day of the accident in 1988, and includes footage of the wreckage. With these conversations as backdrop, Mercedes Benz then returns to the scene of the crash with Christopher White, who is given the opportunity to test drive the new Mercedes Benz S-Class along the same stretch of road. The catch? The car would be driving him, autonomously. “Are you serious?” we hear Chris ask. He starts driving, and as he begins approaching the scene of the accident, puts the car into autonomous mode. We hear the producer tell him to take his hands off the steering wheel and, visibly nervous, Christopher White lifts his hands into the air as the Mercedes Benz beautifully drives around the bends on its own. The result is a genius marketing campaign by Mercedes Benz which succesfully captures 30 years of innovation in a 5 minute video.

Due to the continued interest in this post, I will try my best to keep the links updated. As of July 2022, all of the links in the post above are current and working. You can also find the links to the main videos below:

  • Link to Mercedes Benz advertisement (1990)
  • Link to BMW “beats the bends” advertisement (1990)
  • Link to Mercedes Benz 2018 Campaign, “Mercedes-Benz Presents Return to Chapman’s Peak” (2018)

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