Can One Bad Tweet Taint Your Brand Forever?

In the Digital World, a Small Group of People Can Be All It Takes to Create a PR Nightmare

By Published on .

BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- Hundreds of messages on the boards at have criticized changes to Pampers Cruisers in recent months, but a closer look shows an outsized portion of them came from a couple of posters.

Social media might be all about big numbers, but in a surprising number of marketing mishaps, a relatively small handful of people were the sparks that turned into online brushfires.

But finding the spark and acting on it can be two different things. It's often unclear who has the authority to beat down the blaze even when marketers can spot the early warning signs. It isn't always clear what is the right course is to take. And sometimes, even when marketers do take substantial steps to satisfy an unhappy customer, it still isn't enough.

In many respects, the way Procter & Gamble Co. handled a complaint by Rosana Shah, a Baton Rouge, La., mother last fall, might seem a textbook example of how to prevent a social-media problem. When Ms. Shah called P&G's consumer hotline to complain that changes to Pampers Cruisers were causing more leaks and diaper rash for her daughter, P&G agreed to send her a check for the two boxes of diapers she'd bought, plus enough to cover two more boxes if she would agree to send her original diapers back to the company.

But Ms. Shah later discovered that other parents who had similar experiences hadn't been treated as well, which she considered unfair. She also felt P&G should have told people about the changes (a 20% thinner, 20% more absorbent diaper) which are actually part of what the company is billing its biggest diaper improvement in 25 years.

Subsequently, Ms. Shah became a regular complainer on Pampers' message board and the organizer of a Facebook group dedicated to bringing back the old Cruisers. The group now numbers more than 200 members, many of whom have no personal complaints about the diapers but feel P&G acted unfairly.

Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
Silence sometimes golden
"Brands need to be super-attentive," said Pete Blackshaw, exec VP of Nielsen Online, which sells a suite of services for tracking online buzz. "But they're not always going to win. You can have all the listening devices on planet Earth, but it doesn't mean they can necessarily prevent this."

The advent of the power of one has also changed how marketers use social-media analytics. The promise of the practice has been continuous tracking that can pinpoint such human sparks before they ignite; social-media analytics firms say real-time tracking has become perhaps the fastest-growing part of a business that was once focused more on longer-term measurement.

Mr. Blackshaw, who has been working in the consumer-buzz space for more than a decade since founding in 1999, finds himself in the odd position of now believing brands are sometimes better off saying nothing to vocal critics, or at least not bending over backward to please them. "There's no secret sauce to managing the outspoken consumer," Mr. Blackshaw said. "And the risk of over-responding is setting the bar too high or maybe even over-dignifying an unreasonable voice."

The influence of one or a relatively small group of people has proved particularly powerful for advertising, as their judgments can quickly become the lens through which thousands of additional individuals view the ads online.

Such was certainly the case for Johnson & Johnson's Motrin, whose online ads about moms who wear their babies in slings had been online for 45 days in the fall of 2008 until one mom took offense to the campaign.

Per Alexa data, an estimated 200,000 people had been exposed to the ads without raising an objection to them online. Then one day Colorado photographer Barb Lattin noticed a complaint about the ad on a baby-wearing section of a Yahoo Group for devotees of "attachment parenting" and posted it on the blog attached to her photography business,

Another Colorado-based blogger, Amy Gates of, picked up on that and posted the first tweet on the subject just under five hours later.

Suddenly, thousands of people who had never seen the ad before and probably never would have were seeing it in a light cast by people who were offended by its tone. By the following Sunday, the Motrin ad controversy was generating as many as 300 tweets an hour, according to, and had cracked Twitter's "trending topics" list. Marketing bloggers started picking up on the controversy, and some of the bloggers began pitching the story to news outlets such as The New York Times.

Twitter at the time was nearing the apex of its hype curve, but it's still not clear complaints about an obscure campaign would have become a news story had J&J not decided to pull the plug on the campaign on that Sunday afternoon, Nov. 16, 2008.

It turned out to be a fairly quick response -- over the course of a weekend -- though bloggers criticized J&J for being slow to respond. In retrospect, some think it may have been too hasty.

"There are a lot of cases where it may be appropriate for [brands] not to respond," Mr. Blackshaw said. "I think J&J responding to Motrin [complaints] may actually have made it worse. They gave all of the journalists and marketing bloggers like me a beginning and an end [to the story]."

Motrin is a decades-old brand with millions of consumers, most of whom probably still have never heard of the controversy. But it was a different story for Method, more of a niche brand with a consumer base that skews liberal and environmentally conscious.

Method's 'Shiny Suds'
A room full of marketers at the Association of National Advertisers conference last November -- male and female -- applauded Method's send-up of cleaner advertising with its "Shiny Suds" parody viral ad, in which cartoon bubbles leer at and harass a woman in her shower. A number of environmental blogs also applauded the ad, which supported legislation requiring disclosure of cleaning ingredients.

But two feminist blogs took offense to the ad about a week after it made its formal debut last November, and one of them contended the ad condoned rape. As more of their readers saw the ad after seeing these reviews, they began e-mailing Method. Given the more serious nature of the complaints, and that they came from a substantial segment of Method's consumer base, the company quickly pulled the plug on the ad.

Pinpointing how small of a group complaints really come from, however, sometimes gives marketers the support they need to take no action. Such appears to have been the case with Sprint and the Palm Pre last June.

Sprint hired Infegy's Social Radar to track buzz surrounding its launch of the Palm Pre phone. "One accusation that spread pretty widely across the internet was that [people] had a problem with their screen and it cracked," said Adam Coomes, president of Infegy. Sprint executives were concerned they would need to recall devices to fix the screens, but Mr. Coomes said, "We were able to trace [the reports] back to one incident, and it just created rumors about how the screens were not good enough. But it was really just that one guy who probably just dropped his phone."

A single photo of a cracked screen did circulate widely online and was picked up by a Fast Company blog and others. And the original post with the photo subsequently has been taken down.

But a Google search also turns up several complaints seemingly from different individuals, along with photos of different screen cracks, though some posters do appear to have taken their grievances to multiple forums. Sprint executives didn't return calls and e-mails for comment.

Interpreting data is hardest part
In fairness, online complaints about cracks on other smartphones, notably iPhones, are also numerous.

Unfounded complaints generally will die on their own if others don't experience the same problems, Mr. Blackshaw said. Others subsequently having the same problem, however, will give the early complaints more velocity, so the earliest users still have an outsized influence on the conversation.

With social-media tracking services proliferating, the problem often isn't data, Mr. Blackshaw said, it's how to interpret it. "The issue of flagging the blip on a radar is not as complicated as assigning a value to whether it might get worse," he said. "This is where technology isn't the solution, but you have to have smart people who can offer some judgment and say, 'This is a consumer who has a lot of credibility. If you look at their track record they've consistently created waves whenever they speak. They're teeing up the comment in a forum known for high levels of virality. This person shows up in search results all the time, which shows they consistently get a lot of link love so therefore higher exposure.' You can automate some of this, but a lot is just good, old-fashioned judgment."

He added, "I think the marketplace is finally starting to move" on getting consumer affairs closer to marketing, noting companies such as P&G that now have the consumer affairs unit as part of the broader marketing organization.


Finding complaints about products or marketing online is increasingly quick and easy. Knowing when and how to respond is at best an emerging science -- or art. Among factors to consider:

  • How credible is the source? The tone and track record of the complaining consumer are among factors to consider. A quick Google search of screen names or handles can often turn up a wealth of information on the track record of a particular commenter.
  • How influential is the forum? Comments on thinly read message boards are one thing. Comments on online retailer review sections, however, can last forever and influence purchase decisions at the point of sale, particularly at big retailers such as or
  • How common is the complaint likely to be? A valid complaint is likely to be echoed fairly quickly by others, though it's also important to determine whether the same person is complaining under different screen names. Correlating online complaints with call-center volume can help verify the scope of the threat.
  • How serious is the complaint? People not liking an ad because of aesthetic or other creative reasons are one thing. People not liking an ad because they think it demeans an entire race, gender or class of individuals is another, and potentially more serious.
  • How likely is my response to make things worse? As a general rule, pulling an ad or discontinuing or recalling a product will produce news stories. Complaints in and of themselves often won't.
  • How important is my issue to my brand's consumers? Motrin's "babywearer" ad offended a relatively small segment of consumers for an old, established brand with millions of consumers. Method's "Shiny Suds" ad offended a relatively small segment of consumers that loomed potentially large for a much younger, less-established brand.
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