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What J&J Could Have Done

November 21, 2008 

It wasn’t exactly a repeat of the 1982 poisoned Tylenol disaster, but Johnson & Johnson was struggling with a minor crisis this week after some vocal critics derided an edgy ad that implied that new moms could suffer back pain from carrying their infants. What can we learn from this episode and was J&J’s rapid apology really the best response?

The video had actually been online for more than six weeks before a few vocal moms on Twitter began trashing it this past weekend. The ad suggests, with tongue in cheek, that new moms who bond with their babies by carrying them in slings and chest packs may be inadvertently giving themselves back pain. The message wasn’t that moms shouldn’t bond with their children but that they should be ready for the consequences.

Seems innocuous enough, but a few vocal mommy bloggers didn’t see it that way. They thought the ad was insulting to mothers and they Twittered their criticism, calling for a boycott of Motrin. Bloggers picked up on the controversy and posted more than 100 opinions about the ad, J&J’s reaction and the media frenzy that surrounded it. There were even parody ads making fun of the whole affair. Forrester’s Josh Bernoff has a good account of the controversy with links to background material.

A chastened J&J pulled the ad off its website and issued an apology on its corporate blog. The promotion “was meant to engender sympathy and appreciation for all that parents do for their kids, but did so through an attempt at humor that missed the mark and many moms found offensive,” wrote Kathy Widmer, Vice President of Marketing at McNeil Consumer Healthcare.

J&J probably had no choice but to withdraw the ad, since the criticism was threatening to swamp any benefit the company had hoped to receive. But you also have to wonder if the company hurt itself by buckling to political correctness due to pressure from a minority of critics. After all, the ad hadn’t seemed to offend anyone in particular during the first six weeks it was posted. It was only after a few outraged mommy bloggers began drawing attention to it that the criticism spiraled out of control. At that point, it was too late for J&J to explain its motives. Its critics had taken control of the conversation and anything the company did would look defensive and stubborn.

The incident quickly created a lot of soul-searching on both sides. A backlash against #motrinmoms developed, with some people criticizing the critics for practicing mob rule. Even one of the most vocal motrinmoms, Jessica Gottlieb, suggested that J&J overreacted in pulling down the ad. In fact most of the recent blogger activity has focused more on untangling what happened than debating whether J&J was right or wrong.

Here’s my take. J&J’s choice of language in the ad was arrogant and dismissive. The ad talked down to mothers and was begging for a backlash. However, that wasn’t necessarily a reason not to run it. J&J could have mitigated the criticism, or even turned it to its advantage, by using social media channels more effectively:

  • The company could have invited a select group of mommy bloggers to preview the campaign privately and offer feedback. Even if the company had elected to go ahead without making changes, it would have been able to argue that it had sought guidance from its target group. And if the moms had blessed the video, it would have been the ultimate defense for J&J.
  • The ad could have been presented in a humorous context on the Motrin site. A message like, “We know your babies aren’t a fashion accessory, but since this is International Baby-Wearing Week, we thought you’d appreciate this good-natured parody,” would have gone a long way toward heading off criticism.
  • J&J could have listened. When a blogger tracked down the head of corporate communications for J&J’s ad agency for a comment on the firestorm on Sunday afternoon, the woman professed to know nothing about the controversy. This is despite the fact that more than 2,000 Twitter messages had already been posted. Take note: the blogosphere doesn’t take weekends off.
  • The company could have jumped into the Twitterstream and engaged. It didn’t, preferring to post a rather brief statement on the blog and issue a press release. Kathy Widmer should have responded on the critics’ own turf. Her message was constructive, but a little too disconnected.
  • J&J could have been more profuse in its apologies. A big donation to Babywearing International would have been a start. Or it could have taken Jessica Gottlieb’s advice and distributed baby slings in maternity awards around the country. I’m not sure I agree that branding them with the Motrin logo would have been such a good idea.

In today’s networked world, there is no excuse for a corporation to be surprised by negative response to a controversial message. Social networks and the blogosphere offer a cheap and speedy way to anticipate criticism. Ironically, J&J is one of only two pharmaceutical companies to host a corporate blog (Glaxo’s alliConnect is the only other one I’m familiar with). This company gets new media more than most of its peers, which makes this online ambush particularly ironic.

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