The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has launched an investigation into complaints about a new version of Pampers diapers called Pampers with Dry Max. Parents have complained that the Dry Max technology causes diaper rashes, chemical burns, and bleeding on their babies. “Anything that occurs with infants we take very seriously,” said CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson.
The complaints started popping up online in early April, after the diapers had only been on the market for a month or two. Mitch Lipka of WalletPop’s Consumer Ally blog writes:
Many [parents] describe the same futile exercise of treating the redness as a diaper rash and finding that none of the typical remedies work. And then, within a day of switching from the new Pampers, parent after parent claims the problem goes away.
Procter & Gamble (P&G), the parent company who manufacturers Pampers, maintains that the materials used in the new diapers would not cause the skin problems being described. P&G spokesman Bryan McLeary said, “Pampers with Dry Max is the most mom- and baby-tested diapers in our history. More than 20,000 babies from around the world involving more than 300,000 diaper changes were part of the development of Dry Max. This is one of Pampers’ most thoroughly researched and tested new products ever.”
Still, two class action lawsuits have been filed that ask P&G to reimburse parents for medical expenses associated with using the Dry Max diapers and for purchase prices. Social media response has been overwhelming. A Facebook group was launched, dedicated to getting Pampers to bring back the old version of its diapers, which now has more than 10,000 members. Beth Balsam, who works for the public relations agency that represents P&G, was invited to write a blog entry for parenting and family website Life360. The reader comments on Balsam’s post are almost entirely negative, many even angered further by Balsam’s story.
Jodi Allen, P&G’s vice president for Pampers, has called the backlash “completely false rumors fueled by social media.” Trevor Butterworth, who writes a weekly column for Forbes about online journalism and other Internet-related topics, seems to agree with Allen. He compares the backlash against P&G and Pampers to the hysteria elicited by Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. He uses terms like “viral paranoia” and “viral panic,” along with the amusing “social nutworking,” to describe the situation:
[… ] some who were unhappy with the change took to Facebook to protest the new design, and once the idea the diapers caused ‘chemical burns’ was put into play, people began to report seeing chemical burns. And then the media started to report the reports of chemical burns.
The phenomenon of “viral panic” — not just in regards to the P&G issues — relates to someone’s suggestibility, something that Butterworth says is not even particularly tied to educational status. He also refers to a book called Denialism by New Yorker writer Michael Specter that discusses the inverse relationship between expertise and public trust, particularly when compared to the 1938 War of the Worlds audience. In contemporary times, the public is less apt to believe an authority figure (e.g., a corporation) rather than a regular Jane Doe.
Along those lines, so-called “mommy bloggers” are trusted because fellow mothers can view them as “one of us.” Back in 2008, McCleary even said, “It’s official: Mom bloggers are the new influencers.” That’s what P&G was banking on when it invited a few mommy bloggers to its headquarters for an intensive review session of the new Dry Max diaper line after the social media backlash had begun. Renee Bigner, Kate Marsh Lord, Tiffany Snedaker, and Stephanie Manner Wagner were all flown to Cincinnati to meet with P&G employees and outside experts about Pampers with Dry Max.
P&G’s PR response to the backlash, including the sponsored mommy blogging, is receiving some pretty intense criticism from Everything PR, an online publication that deals with public relations, marketing, and social media. Mihaela Lica, a senior partner at Pamil Visions PR and editor at Everything PR, thinks that the four bloggers aren’t being completely transparent about their compensation (and perhaps don’t fully understand it), and they may be in violation of Federal Trade Commission (FTC) laws regarding endorsements and testimonials, including those written by bloggers. Lica also suggests that the four mothers did not actually write their pieces themselves either, as they appear to be well crafted “propaganda”:
These bloggers visited Pampers in Cincinnati a week ago, but they didn’t post their conclusions immediately after the meeting. It took three of them more than a week to come up with some of the most amazing, in-depth articles they’ve ever written. These sponsored reviews writers don’t have ANY other articles of such depth and skill on their sites. All their other articles are product focused, short, full of sales lingo hidden behind a concerned mommy approach. These are the people used by corporation to promote products. These are the people you trust to give unbiased reviews. But as long as money or any form of compensation is involved, nothing is unbiased.
Lica’s colleague Phil Butler is editor-in-chief of Everything PR and senior partner at Pamil Visions PR. He shares Lica’s critical perspective about the Pampers’ sponsored bloggers, writing, “their pitiful PR efforts in dealing with the Pampers Dry Max affair have apparently led P & G to believe they are some kind of force in the social sphere.” (By the way, his piece, “Procter and Gamble’s Online Marriage, A Pitiful Engagement,” is quite an interesting read, and not just about this particular topic.)
The Pampers Dry Max fiasco shows how powerful social media can be not only in uniting brand advocates, as we’ve discussed on the Newsblogger before, but also in uniting advocates against your brand. It also proves that social media is not the crisis management panacea it’s sometimes presented to be. One of the major complaints from those who feel affected by the Pampers with Dry Max diapers is that P&G’s customer service was dismissive, and some even feel that the company was outright calling the complaining customers liars. This should remind all business owners that online public relations cannot serve as a mere replacement for the old-fashioned kind; the two must work together.
Source: “Pampers Dry Max complaints spark federal investigation,” WalletPop, 05/04/10
Source: “Pampers Dry Max causing rashes and burns, parents allege,” WalletPop, 04/23/10
Source: “Procter and Gamble has a virtual War of the Worlds moment,” Forbes, 05/25/10
Source: “Pampers lawsuit: Should you join it?,” The Christian Science Monitor, 05/14/10
Source: “Recall Pampers Dry Max movement gets slammed by Procter & Gamble,” WalletPop, 05/07/10
Source: “The Pampers Moms in PR Propaganda Spree,” EverythingPR, 05/28/10
Source: “Procter and Gamble’s Online Marriage, A Pitiful Engagement,” EverythingPR, 05/30/10
Source: “P&G Relies on Power of Mommy Bloggers,” Advertising Age, 07/14/08
Source: “Dry Max PR Goofs: Pampers Attempts to Buy Trust,” EverythingPR, 05/21/10
Image of baby’s bottom by jessicafm, used under its Creative Commons license.
Image of Pampers with Dry Max packaging used under Fair Use: Reporting.