In Pampers War, P&G Breaks a Marketing Taboo: Criticizing Moms

Last Updated May 10, 2010 1:23 PM EDT

Procter & Gamble (PG)'s combative stance against online moms who are convinced that Pampers Dry Max diapers cause "chemical burns" and diaper rash should be watched closely by managers in any company for whom mothers are key consumers. Until recently, companies had cowered in fear before mommy bloggers and their followers. For advertisers, publicly criticizing mothers is the equivalent of shouting "release the Kraken!"

Should P&G prevail, a monolithic idea among marketers will fall -- the idea that big companies cannot criticize their most sympathetic consumers.

P&G has been working full tilt on this issue ever since moms set up a Facebook page urging P&G bring back the diaper brand Dry Max replaced. On that page, parents have posted some quite unpleasant photos of their kids' diaper rashes. P&G denies that its diapers cause rash. Unusually for a consumer marketer, it used tough language to make that denial, directly targeting its critics:

... completely false rumors fueled by social media ... perpetuated by a small number of parents ... Some have specifically sought to promote the myth that our product causes 'chemical burns.' We have comprehensively and thoroughly investigated these and other claims and have found no evidence whatsoever ... It is very common for parents to correlate a change in our products with the sudden appearance of a rash. ... We will continue to work hard to educate parents on the facts surrounding this story, as well as defend the integrity of our product from false and misleading information.
P&G even has a Pampers war room (although they don't call it that) according to Ad Age:
"We've been having daily 7 a.m. conference calls among all the functions every morning, including weekends, about this since we got the first inkling," Jodi Allen, VP-North American baby care told Ad Age between one of two TV interviews she did May 7 with TV stations from Indianapolis and Columbus.

Four or so employees are regularly stationed in the brand's listening post (a term Mr. McCleary said he preferred to "war room") monitoring and categorizing new Facebook posts and other social-media chatter.

It's not guaranteed that P&G will win this fight. Moms have a built-in advantage: They're moms. We all have one. We all love them. We defer to them in matters of child-raising. Companies annoy them at their peril. (P&G's Pampers web site already has more than 30 pages of complaints on its bulletin board.) For example, Valassis (VCI) found itself the target of an online campaign after it moved to shift grocery coupons from newspapers to the web.

But being a mom with a Facebook page does not make you right. Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) caved almost instantly after producing an ad for Motrin that moms didn't like (it suggested baby slings cause back pain). Rather less attention was paid to the federal government's warning that baby slings can be dangerous for babies -- seven children have suffocated to death in them. J&J's ad doesn't look so unreasonable in that light.

P&G is hoping that science and facts will trump what moms "know" to be true. That may be the tougher part of the battle. Moms "know" lots of things about kids that aren't true (one in four parents believe vaccines cause autism, for instance, even though they don't). The battle here is not with opposing scientists, it's with opposing consumers. It's their money, not their facts, that will win the fight.

Related: