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One outstanding online reputation management disaster will haunt you forever

No one really likes to acknowledge it, but people take pleasure in others’ pain. It’s called Schadenfreude and it’s what enables us to enjoy the fall of the big and powerful. Social media provides us with every opportunity to watch brands fail spectacularly, but while we shake our heads in disbelief at the utter stupidity that drives some social media campaigns, it’s also important that we learn from these colossal mistakes.

My favourite online reputation management disaster belongs to McNeil Consumer Healthcare, which is part of the Johnson & Johnson group. In 2008, McNeil Consumer Healthcare embarked on a video campaign for Motrin, a brand of pain relievers for infants, children and, as it turns out, mothers. The 2008 campaign was aimed at busy moms who carry their babies in slings or wraps. It’s a lucrative market. But Motrin erred in massive misjudgement and ended up being vilified by moms across the US. It was crucified on Twitter and spurred a number of retaliatory videos, including a spoof video about boob jobs that is bitingly clever.

When you watch the Motrin video (which I recommend) you can’t help but wonder how on earth it got the green light.

The ad, which is narrated by a woman, starts off on the wrong foot immediately by referring to the practice of carrying babies in slings as fashionable. It goes on to say that even though it is supposedly bonding and gives babies comfort (they cry less) it causes moms pain (they cry more).

I’m not a mom, but I do know that moms very seldom base their parenting methods on fashion. What really grates my cheese though, is the “supposedly”. It’s “supposedly” a bonding experience. The phrasing is incredibly patronising and tries to question millennia of common knowledge and decades of scientific research. The ad disintegrates further the longer it goes, until the end when our narrator with the questionable maternal instincts says that thanks to the pain relieving abilities of Motrin, she won’t have to stop carrying her baby, which is a good thing because it totally makes her look like an official mom.

An “official mom”; you’ve got to love it.

Motrin’s mammoth mistakes

Where did it all go wrong for McNeil Consumer Healthcare?

Where to start?

  1. Whoever was doing the marketing broke the first golden rule. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using social media or traditional media or both; you have to know your target market. Judging by the online video, the people responsible for the campaign had only a vague concept of motherhood. It’s unlikely that they’d ever seen it in practice or met any moms in real life. It’s the only way to explain how the idea made it through the incubation stage.
  2. In addition to minimum market research, the ad must not have been run by a test group, which would surely have binned it.
  3. They completely underestimated the market’s reaction.
  4. The response was inadequate. They responded quite quickly, probably because they were swamped with complaints and embarrassed by all the #motrinmoms hastags on Twitter, not to mention the slew of angry videos that were uploaded to YouTube. It didn’t take long for them to post an apology on the website and start removing the ad from all media, but that was about all. Which isn’t really enough to appease the hordes of women who pledged to boycott the company.

The upshot

It’s worth noting that not all moms hated the ad. That’s not to say they condoned it, just that they thought the reaction was overly dramatic.

While considerable, the damage to Motrin’s reputation wasn’t complete. It takes more than one bad ad to ruin a huge national company. But, the damage is lasting. If you Google Motrin, news about the controversial ad still appears on the first page. It’s right at the bottom of the page, but it’s still there. The video is right at the top on the second page and three more uncomplimentary articles appear.

So, even though roughly two and half years have passed, the company can’t shake the perception that it thinks moms are shallow. And that is why it’s so important to know your audience before you do anything online.

One mistake will haunt you for eternity.

Photo courtesy of ursonate

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