But there was one even odder interloper -- Procter & Gamble Co.'s Bounce dryer sheets. Bounce wasn't trying to capitalize on the misfortune of sibling brands Iams and Eukanuba. It was simply running a previously scheduled ad around the word "pet" to drive pet owners to BounceEverywhere.com to show how to use dryer sheets to get hair off clothes.
Bounce's entry is one sign that one of the last major holdouts to search advertising -- the package-goods industry -- may be coming around.
"There's an elevated consciousness [among package-goods marketers] that search is driving awareness and trial," said Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer of Nielsen BuzzMetrics. "Five years ago, that was an awareness exclusively confined to higher-involvement products."
The conventional wisdom has been that low-involvement household and personal-care brands don't get much out of search. Few people search for "laundry detergent," for example. They more often search for benefits the brands confer, though many marketers have been relatively slow to capitalize on that.
Look up "grass stains" on Google, and the 141,000 listings indicate substantial consumer interest in the topic. But of the four paid listings, only one, from Unilever's Wisk, hawks a solution from a detergent marketer. (An eBay robo-ad offers to sell "grass stains for less," while PlanetUrine.com offers a supplement to keep dog urine from staining grass.) Search listings for other stains have no paid ads whatsoever.
Colgate finds success
Sellers of search media do appear to be getting through to package-goods executives. Colgate-Palmolive Co. Chairman-CEO Reuben Mark made a point last year of noting his company's more aggressive use of search ads in advance of a major competitive launch -- P&G's Crest Pro-Health toothpaste.
While Crest appeared alongside Colgate last fall in paid listings around words such as "cavities," "gingivitis" and "tartar," Crest has since stopped ads on those terms. But Colgate has maintained its ads, and Alexa.com shows Colgate.com has broadened its traffic lead over Crest.com the past two years.
Another example: As May ended and June approached, Johnson & Johnson's Clean & Clear shifted paid search ads from "prom" and "acne" to "wedding" and "acne."
Kevin George, VP-deodorant for North America at Unilever, said he's taken interest in pitches from Google recently about ways its vast data trove can be used to target consumers with searches that go beyond the obvious.
Meeting for conversation
Kevin Kells, national industry director for package goods at Google, cited a hypothetical involving Unilever's Dove and its Campaign for Real Beauty: "Any woman who's ever gone to a site about weight loss probably has struggled with issues around body image, and that's probably a place to engage her in a conversation about real beauty. ... We've been trying to get package-goods companies to broaden the concentric circles of relevance."
"We've seen exponential growth [in package-goods search buys] over the past year, coming off such a small base that you've got to keep it in perspective," Mr. Kells said. Personal care and beverages have been the fastest-growing sectors, he said, and the growth of broadband video and the ability to link search to it have been among the biggest factors attracting package-goods advertisers.
Search around the pet-food crisis also helped open package-goods marketers' eyes to the importance of search as a PR tool, said Matt Wilburn, Yahoo's senior category director for consumer package goods.
One problem companies have is figuring out who owns search, Mr. Blackshaw said. Agencies aren't necessarily equipped or required to create search ads, he said, and it's often unclear internally whether marketing or information-technology staff is best-equipped to manage search.