Purpose: Extant research on comparative advertising has focused only on “market leader” comparisons (a brand targeting the market leader), whereas in the marketplace, “multi-brand” comparisons are more prevalent (Kalro et al., 2010). Moreover, most research focuses on direct comparisons only. Hence, this research aims to investigate the interplay between comparison ad strategy (“market leader”/“multi-brand” comparisons) and comparison ad format (direct/indirect comparisons) on the effectiveness of comparative advertising. Design/methodology/approach: This paper uses four 2 × 2 fully crossed factorial designs (comparison ad format: direct vs indirect and comparison ad strategy: market leader vs multi brand) with established and new brands in two categories: powdered detergents and smart phones. All studies were conducted in metropolitan cities of India. Findings: By and large, the experiments indicated that direct (indirect) comparisons lowered (heightened) perceived manipulative intent and enhanced (reduced) attitude-toward-the-ad for multi-brand (market leader) comparisons. Practical implications: Findings suggest that when advertisers use comparative advertising, they may use direct ads when using multi-brand comparisons and use indirect ones when using market leader comparisons. It could also be argued that when advertisers use multi-brand comparisons because of fragmentation in the marketplace, they may directly compare against these multiple brands. When advertisers need to compare against a market leader, they may do so indirectly. Originality/value: This research is among the first to investigate multi-brand comparisons that are widely used in the industry and that too in the context of both direct and indirect comparison formats. © 2017, © Emerald Publishing Limited.