In adland, it’s known as “confusion marketing”. It’s why you can’t quite work out whether that great-sounding telephone plan really is better. And why health insurance schemes always seem the same, even though their ads say they are different.

The idea is to take very similar products and load them with benefits (some spurious, some not) so it is almost impossible for anyone other than a professional actuary to understand the difference.

Faced with such mathematical conundrums, most consumers throw up their hands and stick with the brands they know. Which is why this technique is often used by large corporations like Telstra and Qantas.

Is it used by cruise lines? We’ll let you be the judge…

In the case of some, products are so distinct confusion marketing is impossible. Crystal Cruises, Ponant and Lindblad are unique. A cheap deal, onboard credit or a free spa is unlikely to be the deciding factor when their passengers book a journey.

Other lines and destinations are less distinct. Big white ships abound on the oceans and, whatever the lines say, every European river ship is the same size because of the locks.

Which brings us to the peculiar row that broke out this week over Viking Cruises’ Dare to Compare promotion. In the words of the Viking press release: “With pricing of cruise holidays becoming increasingly complex, Viking River Cruises, the world’s leading river cruise line, has launched an upgraded version of its Dare To Compare online tool to help simplify comparing pricing, offers and cruise inclusions and make more informed choices easier for consumers and travel agents.”

The website compares the inclusions and prices for Viking’s three most popular river cruise holidays with similar competitor itineraries.

“Our research tells us that consumers find the offers and discounts in the river cruise holiday market confusing,” says Teresia Fors, Viking River Cruises’ Australia & New Zealand Managing Director.

“That’s why we created a user-friendly tool to help consumers and agents research what’s available in the market and compare the cost and benefits of each alternative.”

That’s not the way leading competitor APT sees the promotion. According to head of sales Debra Fox, the Viking site contains inaccurate pricing and omissions which makes comparisons dishonest. “Viking and APT are not like-for-like comparison products, a fact that we know the travel trade will already be aware of,” she told trade newsletter Travel Daily.

The Viking website features the most common itineraries – the 15-day Grand European Tour, the 11-day Romantic Danube with Prague, and the 8-day Chateaux, Rivers & Wine, and offers the corresponding cruise options of two other cruise lines for easy comparison between their rivals.

No prizes for guessing APT is one of them. Scenic, who have so far refused to comment, are the other.

So how does it compare?

When Cruise Passenger gave it a try, we chose an 11-day Romantic Danube cruise with Prague in May next year in a standard stateroom.

Only Scenic was offered as an alternative last night – and the prices were eerily similar.

The Scenic standard stateroom is 10 square feet bigger and their Gems of the Danube cruise has two more ports of call and two more included tours. Viking has a “concierge” while Scenic has a butler.

The Viking trip is $5,498 with an air fare of $995 including taxes, while Scenic is $5,370 with published air fares plus taxes, according to Dare to Compare.

So not much in it, really,

We at Cruise Passenger consider anything that helps cruisers compare is a good idea. So long as the information is accurate AND complete.

Our advice: you can’t beat independent reviews by professionals whose job is to assess the value of a cruise itinerary and ship from the consumer point of view.

Which is why we suggest the best way to ensure you make the right choice is to take out a subscription to Cruise Passenger.

We’re the only consumer cruise magazine, so you don’t need to carry out any comparisons at all.

And we are about to launch a major drive for reader-written reviews, so watch this space!

Click here to subscribe.