What I like to call the "flash flood" phenomenon on the Web, in which outraged consumers band together through blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other sites, has become fairly commonplace by now: A TV show gets cancelled, a company's product turns out to be less than advertised, and boom - an instant protest group forms, using blogs and other "social media" as a megaphone to make its collective voice heard.
The latest example was the brouhaha over a Motrin ad campaign, in which the division of Johnson & Johnson that makes the popular painkiller created a video with a woman talking over a background of moving text, describing the pain that some mothers feel as a result of "wearing" their babies in slings, Snuglis and other maternal paraphernalia. A perfect case for the soothing relief of Motrin, the company helpfully suggested.
Unfortunately for Johnson & Johnson, however, the tone of the ad was seen by some mothers as condescending at best, and dismissive at worst. The voice-over was described as sarcastic, and the text accompanying it was seen by many as denigrating the sling approach as "a fad," something women adopt as a way of displaying how maternal and earthy they are.
Within hours of the ad appearing on the company's website, there were hundreds of negative comments on Twitter, the group chat/instant-messaging service, and blogs started popping up with outraged responses from some prominent "mommy bloggers" - the same group that consumer-product companies such as Johnson & Johnson usually approach to help them get the message out about new services or products.
Negative video responses started showing up on YouTube, and a critical Facebook group was created that soon had more than a thousand members, all calling for a boycott of Motrin. Comments called the ad "disgraceful," "offensive," "disrespectful" and many other things.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, given the ability of some of these bloggers to affect public opinion within their target market, the powers-that-be at Johnson & Johnson quickly pulled the ad and replaced it with an apology. Kathy Widmer, a vice-president of marketing (and a mother of three), also e-mailed the apology to several bloggers, saying: "With regard to the recent Motrin advertisement, we have heard you. ... Please accept our sincere apology. We certainly did not mean to offend moms through our advertising. Instead, we had intended to demonstrate genuine sympathy and appreciation for all that parents do for their babies. ... We sincerely apologize for disappointing you."
But did Motrin make the right decision in pulling the ad? I'm not so sure it did.
After reading through a number of blogs and Twitter responses to the incident, it's not at all clear that the moms who were critical of the Motrin ad were even in the majority. Several other "mommy bloggers" and moms in general said they thought that the ad was amusing and that it was poking harmless fun at the "baby-wearing" phenomenon, not casting aspersions on mothers in general. Others said that wearing slings and similar products did cause neck and back strain, and that they were happy to have painkillers such as Motrin.
Some public-relations and marketing professionals said Johnson & Johnson put its foot in it. Because it didn't check with mommy bloggers while putting the campaign together (I couldn't find any evidence of whether it did or not), pulling the ad was the right response. Others said all Motrin did was show a small group that it could get the company to pull something it didn't like, and that this wasn't necessarily the right message to send, since it would only encourage similar incidents in the future.
The bigger question is this: Should the vocal minority always be the one to control the debate? One of the spinoff effects of Web 2.0 and social-media tools such as blogs, Twitter and Facebook is that they make it even easier for relatively small groups or niche markets to seem larger and more influential than they actually are. It's natural for companies to respond to their customers. But which customers should they respond to - the ones who say everything is fine, or the ones who are complaining about the product?
I'm not a social-media consultant, but I think it would have been far better for Johnson & Johnson to acknowledge the concerns of the mommy bloggers and Twitter and Facebook users, and then give them a forum to contribute their thoughts on the topic - and not just that specific ad, but others as well. Let them propose their own ad campaigns if they want to. Why listen to only one small group of users when you can listen to them all? Then pick a direction and go with it. There's no point in trying to base what you do on the Web equivalent of talk radio.
Columnist Ivor Tossell
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