ANN ARBOR Mich. If two chains’ combative marketing campaigns are a sign of things to come this year, restaurant industry segment leaders may be in for more than a little friendly competition.
Last night Domino’s Pizza debuted during Fox’s “American Idol” its newest TV spot, in which chief executive David Brandon burns a cease-and-desist letter from Subway Restaurants that urged the pizza chain to drop its claim that its new Oven Baked Subs beat Subway’s comparable sandwiches in a national taste test.
The commercial comes on the heels of Captain D’s debut of the microsite www.irefusetoceaseanddesist.com . The site is a defiant response to rival seafood chain Red Lobster sending a cease-and-desist letter to Captain D’s, asking the 580-unit chain to stop airing commercials  in which it claimed to sell quality seafood at prices far lower than Red Lobster’s.
Dan Dahlen, executive vice president for restaurants and retail with media research firm Nielsen IAG, said this kind of comparative advertising probably will be only more prevalent this year, when restaurants must gain market share from competitors to combat the slumped economy.
“With this economic environment, with traffic and sales becoming harder to get, brands are more willing to take the gloves off and do whatever it takes to drive their fair share of traffic,” Dahlen said. “In [quick service], there is no CEO in the country that’s saying, ‘Well, times are tough, so I can understand why our sales are down.’ It’s, ‘Times are tough; we have to get smarter and more aggressive.’”
Captain D’s TV spots feature spokespeople catching Red Lobster customers coming out of a location of the Darden Restaurants flagship and revealing that those guests could have had similar meals to ones they just ate for as much as $40 cheaper. In addition, Captain D’s offered free T-shirts that read “I refuse to cease and desist” to the first 1,000 guests who visit its microsite. Customers who weren't among those first 1,000 were given a coupon to try the chain's Fish & Fries for $2.59.
Domino’s chief Brandon said acting in his company’s new spot was “as much fun as a good, old-fashioned school cafeteria food fight.”
“We’re flattered that Subway would consider us a threat, since we’re still new to the sandwich game,” he said. “But we also thought the best way to respond to their letter was in an irreverent fashion. I think I did what any red-blooded American always wants to do with a letter from a lawyer: burn it to a crisp.”
Subway had yet to issue a response to Domino's new commercial.
Domino’s claim in question -- the 2-to-1 margin by which its Oven Baked Subs were preferred in an independent taste test over Subway’s similar sandwiches  -- touched off the legal fight between the two chains.
Tim McIntyre, Domino’s vice president of corporate communications, said the independent test, conducted by Lieberman Research Worldwide in eight cities, surveyed more than 900 individuals. However, Subway’s cease-and-desist letter, delivered almost immediately after Domino’s taste-test commercials first aired Dec. 29, did not reference the LRW test and instead contained language pertaining only to an earlier survey not sanctioned by Domino’s.
In that informal survey, conducted in October as a segment for an NBC News affiliate in Washington, D.C., Subway’s and Domino’s sandwiches were handed out at an office lunch gathering and participants were asked for their preferences, but neither chain had anything to do with it.
“Subway’s cease-and-desist letter devoted an entire paragraph to this D.C. taste test, leading us to conclude that they think we’re naive enough to use this as the basis of our taste test [claim],” McIntyre said. “We turned over all our research that proved the veracity of our claims. The reason why the commercial was so tongue in cheek is because the only issue we can see is that Subway lost and they don’t like it. But we have every confidence in the methodology and the caliber of the research.”
LRW’s findings prompted the campaign of TV spots demonstrating how big Domino’s 2-to-1 margin of victory is, McIntyre said, though he did describe an earlier commercial, in which Domino’s Oven Baked Subs are delivered to a fictional competitor called “Submart” as a “shot across the bow” to Subway.
In the legal fight between Captain D’s and Red Lobster, the latter filed a complaint with the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau. According to the Orlando Sentinel, that case has been sent to the Federal Trade Commission. In a summary of the case, Red Lobster disputed the veracity of Captain D’s claims on the grounds that Red Lobster used fresh seafood, while Captain D’s uses frozen fish and king crab medallions “comprised of various materials,” according to the Sentinel's report.