The New York Times may have written that we’re in the midst of “an outbreak of niceness” this weekend, but marketers are not taking note. The number of ads mentioning or criticizing other brands have risen in the year since since the economy went south. And while many brands would like to place themselves above that sort of competition, it appears that the trash talk might be working.

Campbell’s Soup Co., which has been engaged in a comparative ad
campaign with rival Progresso recently, saw condensed-soup sales rise 6% in the last nine months and ready-to-serve soup sales increase 4%, according to AdAge

And they’re not the only ones. General Mills’ Progresso, which responded with a Saatchi & Saatchi campaign touting its “healthier and
better tasting” products, saw its soup sales rise 3%, while Domino’s saw a 1% bounce in same-store-sales after an ad campaign that claimed its subs beat Subway’s in a national taste test.

Increased sales in cheap foods like soup and pizza may have more to do with the current recession than any ad campaign, but food staples are not the only ones seeing a bounce from these tactics.

For the past few years, Apple has been growing its brand image and cheating into Microsoft’s market share with its “Mac vs. Pc” ads featuring Justin Long and John Hodgman. But Microsoft started fighting back last year and has quickly learned that referencing its rival in advertising has been a helpful marketing tool.

Recently Microsoft has learned that denouncing Apple computers as expensive and characterizing Mac users as snobs has negatively affected the perception of Apple products’ value. In a recession, price is a big deal.

The real problem is that companies that get negatively referenced in competitor’s ad campaigns are a litigious bunch. In the past year, General Mills, Whirlpool, Cadbury, and Pepsi have all challenged claims made about them by their competitors.

And while directly referencing the competition can have benefits for a company’s bottom line, it’s still important to do it right. As media and marketing consultant Andy Jung told AdAge, it’s important to stay positive, even while doing a negative ad. The best way to do that is to focus on your brand’s attributes, rather than the competition’s failures.  

That’s a lesson that Advil and Tylenol learned the hard way. The two painkiller brands had a campaign war attacking each other’s side effects in 1996 that drove down sales for the entire category.