When is a good time to call out a rival? For Cadillac, it's now

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ATLANTA -- In one of the commercials that Cadillac plans to run as part of next month's launch of the new ATS compact sedan, a driver gushes that the car "outmatched the BMW 3 series!"

Now, there are two schools of thought on calling out a dominant rival in an advertisement. One theory: Doing so simply reinforces who's the top dog.

Cadillac execs take the opposite view: They believe you've got to be bold when you're the underdog, a role that they're embracing as they launch the brand's first compact sedan in three decades.

"Now's not the time to be timid," Cadillac marketing boss Don Butler said during the media launch of the ATS here this week. "We need people to take notice" of what General Motors execs believe is a worthy 3 series rival.

In February, Cadillac caught some flak for mentioning the 3 series in its first, and so far only, ATS commercial, which ran during the Super Bowl. Butler had described that as a one-off to coincide with the February launch of the redesigned 3 series.

The ATS will give Cadillac sales a boost but can it challenge the top dog -- BMW's 3 series?

But Cadillac is doing it again by citing the compact Bimmer in at least two of the 10 ATS commercials that will pepper coverage of the Olympic Games starting next week.

I like the strategy. Sometimes, the best approach is simply to tell the consumer what you're trying to do. GM execs are putting a lot on the line with their 3 series fighter. Why not tell people how high you're aiming?

\Cadillac marketers also point to a more pragmatic reason to reference the incumbent. Dropping the 3 series name is a quick, shorthand way to explain what market segment the new ATS nameplate will compete in.

"OK," the viewer might think to himself. "So Cadillac is trying to compete with those small, sporty German cars." Whether the next thought is "very cool" or "are they on crack?" is another matter. But at least it helps consumers figure out how they should think about the car.

For its part, BMW is taking the high road.

"We are aware that Cadillac benchmarked the BMW 3 series in the development of the ATS and is making various claims," a BMW spokesman writes in an e-mail. "We welcome every new challenger because each helps to keep us focused on ensuring that the 3 series stays a benchmark for the years ahead."

You can reach Mike Colias at mcolias@crain.com.

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