P&G's BeingGirl mixes sex chat and product pitch

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Procter & gamble co., which in the 1960s objected to Mary Tyler Moore wearing capri pants on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and earlier this year vetted teen magazines for sexual content, has begun using online sex chat for teens to help market feminine products and beauty care.

P&G last week launched BeingGirl.com, a site that mixes online sampling and product pitches for its Always and Tampax brands with interactive features such as health advice, whimsical dancing tampons and a Ms. Period Face feature that lets girls create images of how they feel during menstruation.

Potentially more controversial is a Sex & Relationships section with bulletin boards. Postings appeared fairly tame -- and sparse -- during BeingGirl's first days, but a similar Relationships section of a P&G-sponsored teen site in the U.K., Swizzle (swizzle.co.uk), has drawn a heavy volume of sexually explicit chat as well as complaints from some consumers.

SWIZZLE COMPLAINTS

Swizzle's Relationships section has live chat rooms and bulletin boards on sexual subjects, including solicitations for sex, purportedly from teen girls and boys. Recent bulletin board topics included replies to a query from a girl about how to perform oral sex on her boyfriend and discussion of how gay men and lesbians perform sex.

As an online survey question, Swizzle asked: "What would you do if your best friend got off your boyfriend?"

A person close to P&G said the company has begun receiving complaints in the U.S. from consumers overseas about sexual content on Swizzle. P&G executives told the company's employees P&G did not plan to change the site's content; rather, it planned to expand the approach, the person said.

Swizzle was developed by P&G and Excite@Home's U.K. arm.; P&G developed BeingGirl.

BeingGirl replaces T-Room (www.troom.com) and T-Lounge (www.tlounge.com) teen community sections of P&G's Tampax.com and Always.com sites. Users who go to T-Room and T-Lounge automatically are linked to BeingGirl. T-Room, in particular, featured bulletin boards with wide-ranging discussions on matters of interest to teen girls, a spokeswoman said.

BOLT LINK BACKS SITE

BeingGirl, aside from links on P&G's Always and Tampax sites, also is being promoted through a link on Bolt.com, a teen site that has entertainment, beauty care and other content, including a Sex & Dating chat room where participants solicit phone and cyber sex.

"We found [T-Room] was very popular, because it allows kids to talk to each other in an anonymous sort of way and address issues that they couldn't necessarily talk with each other about and could provide support to each other on those issues," the P&G spokeswoman said. "Basically I don't think we've had any consumer complaints."

BeingGirl collects names, home addresses, e-mail addresses and ages in its registration process. The site says 13 is the minimum registration age, which apparently removes it from restrictions in the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. That law requires parental notification before a child 12 and younger is allowed to use a site.

For registered users, the bulletin board at BeingGirl is essentially open to any topic.

"On occasion [at T-Room], you'd see something you'd consider inappropriate and there might be a couple strings on there and then somebody shuts it down -- one of the kids shuts it down," the spokeswoman said. "They're pretty good about self-monitoring."

DEPARTURE FROM THE NORM

Offering online sex talk, however, appears to be a departure from P&G's traditionally conservative, controversy-averse approach in mainstream media.

The company in the past steered clear of such shock-TV programs as the "Jerry Springer Show;" dramas with partial nudity, such as "NYPD Blue;" or homosexual romance themes.

P&G Chairman John Pepper also has urged TV executives to offer more and higher quality "family friendly" programming, establishing an awards program last year for producers of family fare.

P&G also pulled ads earlier this year from Laura Schlesinger's syndicated TV show, citing controversy over her remarks, which included calling gays "biological errors."

DIFFERING PRACTICES

A P&G spokeswoman was not able to reach P&G media executives for comment by deadline on why online media practices appear different from offline practices. She said P&G's public relations staff in the U.K. was not aware of consumer comments regarding Swizzle.

One difference may be who's making the decision: While P&G's media department is responsible for buying offline media, individual brand managers and marketing directors generally call the shots in online marketing.

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