It reflects worse on the trash talker than the target.

This miserable recession has made a lot of us cranky, and maybe that’s why trash talk about competitors seems more prevalent than ever the last couple of years. If one were to take it all seriously, a conclusion could be drawn that this industry of ours is over-populated by dim-witted, unscrupulous rascals.

Abundant evidence exists to the contrary, which makes all the finger-pointing so tiresome. That, plus the hypocrisy factor. I’m referring to the fact that the bad-mouthers often belong to the same trade, social and community organizations as their supposedly unenlightened counterparts, with whom they often break bread and pretend to be friendly. Away with that sexist stereotype of female gossipers. Businessmen can be just as catty.

To be sure, this is not a universal phenomenon. Our industry harbors plenty of classy individuals who adhere to the notion that if you can’t say anything good about someone, talk about the weather. In fact, this is one reason why these folks come across as classy. They are probably in the majority, though it sometimes seems like a close call given so many conversations that end up with digs at rival business tribes.

The message here is not only that bad-mouthing the competition is boorish and unprofessional. It’s also counterproductive. Sophisticated customers take a dim view of competitor bashing and the net result is to make them more likely to investigate the competitor’s offerings than turn away from them. Sometimes they are not even aware a competitor exists until their curiosity gets piqued by a rival’s roast.

Here’s something else to ponder - we males have a colorful if uncouth expression that has to do with something many of us have learned from unpleasant experience not to attempt outdoors when facing the wind. Its acronym would be PATW. Psychology professors have a fancier term for it, called “spontaneous trait transference (STT).”

STT (or PATW) describes a tendency to attribute traits to people who attribute those traits to others. The phenomenon is related in some ways to the bearer of bad news syndrome, whereby we tend to dislike those who tell us things we don’t want to hear.

According to STT, if you keep telling customers that competing firms ought to be named Lousy Supply Co. or Shoddy Manufacturing Inc., before long their memories will fade of where and when they heard this news. But they are apt to vaguely recall you being associated with the information and come to relate YOUR company as being the lousy/shoddy one. The poetic justice here is lovely, but a bigger picture is that the entire industry gets punctured when competitors spend more time sniping at one another than touting their own way of doing business.

PHCP distributors and manufacturers are hardly unique in their tendency to take potshots at competitors. It exists in all industries, including mine, and it’s not uncommon for major corporations to mount ad campaigns that disparage the competition. Think back to Avis’ “We Try Harder” campaign, or Southwest Airlines’ current TV commercials bragging about the fact that they alone among major airlines don’t charge for checked baggage. Yet these examples are not purely negative in that the companies are using the practices of business rivals to draw attention to their own attributes. The emphasis is on the positive things they do. Also, the messages get sprinkled with a little humor to ease the sting.

Comparisons like that fall into a different category than badmouthing that focuses first and foremost on the real or imagined shortcomings of competitors, and more often than not is vicious in tone. Not coincidentally, market leaders are more likely to be on the receiving end of barbs than slinging them. Disparaging the competition is more often heard from second- and third-rate companies.

Sales and marketing tactics that draw attention to your company’s strengths are inherently better than trying to gain an edge by spitting at someone else. In fact, if you really want to rise to the upper tier of classy behavior, try to find ways to say something good about the competition. “Yes, they are a good company too… They keep us on our toes … The market needs us both.”

More comments like that and less venom will change customers’ perception from “How can I trust this guy?” to “What a class act, I want to buy from him.”

Besides, before you bash the competition, keep in mind that in today’s economic climate, you might be applying to sell their wares pretty soon!