P&G's new Pampers Dry Max diapers are under siege from a grassroots social media campaign accusing the product of causing chemical burns. Two class action lawsuits have been filed in Ohio. The company has denied all claims, both legal and anecdotal. The marketing trades are covering it as an emerging case for "the power of the democratized web" and I'm sure it'll appear in every digital marketing agency pitch that gets peddled this summer.

I wonder if it isn't an example of the madness of crowds...both those running corporations and incensed consumers. Here's why:

The Case:

Consumers are hungry for meaning

Consumers are having an increasingly difficult time finding meaning in life...not faux corporate citizenship or the feel-good of advertising imagery but rather they (we) want to see reason and purpose in the world around us. I don't know about you but I'm sick of randomness and surprise. It's even worse when bad things happen. The more I think I know, the more I want an explanation and I want it right now. The mechanism of social media addresses this need by creating communities of fellow victims or seekers. It's also why there are so many ludicrous conspiracy theories; there's a quorum available for the craziest thoughts and sharing them only encourages believers to believe more deeply and share more. 

Welcome to the "I'm Not OK and Neither Are You" decade.

It's too bad, really. Consumers are in no position to understand, let alone judge, why the world turns or how companies go about conducting their business. Wax poetic about the power of transparency but it's a glib myth: most people don't want to know how sausage gets made, and we're not terribly adept at doing anything constructive with that kind of information if and when we possess it. The folks behind the Facebook page declaring a Pampers boycott aren't looking for objective truth as much as affirmation of the truths they already possess. P&G is responsible for their woes because it has done something wrong and there's little the company can say or do to convince them otherwise. They're not looking for enlightenment as much as affirmation of their darkest fears.

Tell me what I suspected is true and I'll tell you how true that truth feels to me. Then repeat. Much social media experience is less conversation and more diatribe...more an invite to a public execution than an investigation into guilt or innocence.

Corporations deserve our distrust

The likelihood that P&G brought a flawed product to market is awfully small, though not impossible. There's a cadre of risk assessors working for them and for all we know they saw a .001% chance that Dry Max would cause kids to spontaneously combust...and decided it was cheaper to handle those problems rather than change the product. It happens all the time and arguably companies can't guarantee that there'll never be a single adverse reaction to whatever it is they sell; conversely, we have ample recent examples of companies that are being held accountable for having made such determinations: 

  • BP chose not to install a cheap switch as further backup on the oil well it leased in the Gulf
  • Toyota might have suspected issues with the placement of its accelerator pedal but did nothing to change it
  • Goldman Sachs had more lawyers considering how to walk the fine edge of legality without giving much thought to the moral implications of their actions

Think of all those lengthy exceptions that come at the end of prescription drug ads. Whatever you hope a medicine will do for you comes with some risk that you'll grow horns or see The People of the 8th Dimension.

This isn't just a reputational problem for business -- though it's an example of how the context of peoples' beliefs can affect how they receive, synthesize, and share information -- but rather a reality problem. Many billions of marketing dollars have been spent over the years in pursuit of the fundamental lie at the heart of most definitions of brand, however implicit: you can tell people whatever you want. Perhaps consumers would be more trusting if P&G and other top brand names were more explicit in communicating the issues and challenges behind all of the marvelous benefits their products deliver?

The mad crowd could be onto something, but I'm just not sure that it would qualify as the discovery of anything particularly new. And I find that sad.

My Conclusion:

The conventional social media wisdom is that P&G needs to "engage" with its critics because the firestorm of complaints has real impact on its business (the brandchannel story noted that the company had received 400 complaints out of 5 million diapers sold, and that its stock fell 27 cents in a way that suggested there was some causal link to the issue).

I'd love to be in the boardroom to discuss what comes next. I'd propose at least three unconventional alternatives to social engagement:

  • Ignore it. I know, I know...PR heresy but is there a case to be made that trying to convince people out of their convictions is a doomed strategy? The appearance of a dialogue with them isn't an absolute good; in fact, it gives their claims some credence. What if they're really irrational or just completely mistaken or, worse, out to make a buck at P&G's expense? I'm not recommending this strategy but I sure hope somebody internally there has offered up a discussion for a plan that simply said "we will address and remedy any and every customer complaint to the utmost of our capability," and leave it at that? The bet would be that the half-life for this madness won't last long.
  • Enlist surrogates to counter-punch. In less politic terms, find your own crazies to fight the crazies. The idea that reason is the best response could be flawed since the complaints could be unreasonable so reason won't stop the madness. Why not find advocates who are unreasonably in love with their Pampers products? Let inspired groups lob inanity at one another, which might allow the brand to step back? Again, not a recommendation but it would be worth a non-written-notes conversation.
  • Create dissonance. If there's physically and unequivocally no possible way that a Pampers diaper can cause a "chemical burn," why not create new accusations of the product causing time shifts, teleportation, and other obviously nonsense claims? Turn the entire issue into entertainment. Having just written this bullet I worry that it would come across as such a slap in the face of any genuine complaints so it's probably not the best idea...but couldn't the best strategy for combating noise be more noise in some instances? 

OK, perhaps I am just having too much fun at P&G's expense. It doesn't really matter because my gut tells me they'll follow the social sages and chat up the net until the issue subsides. I'm just not sure it's going to teach us anything, and certainly nothing worth emulating.

There's probably nothing wrong with the diapers...it’s the connection between brands and consumers that's completely broken, and I think the real aha for both parties will be to define and then live in some reasonable middle ground in which wild accusations aren’t bandied about, but then neither are wild corporate behaviors tolerated.

I'm hopeful that a new understanding of meaning and trust might yet emerge from this Reign of Social Media. More heads are likely to roll before we get there.  

(Image: "The Radical Arms," by George Cruikshank, 1792-1878. Public domain)

Original Post: http://www.dimbulb.net/my_weblog/2010/05/surviving-the-reign-of-social-media.html

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