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Crashing Motrin-Gate: A Social-Media Case Study

J&J Caved to a Vocal Flash Mob, but Did It Hurt Its Relationship With a Larger Audience?

By Published on . 21

BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- At first glance, it looks like Johnson & Johnson's Motrin was chastened by the power of social media when it yanked a Motrin ad campaign pilloried by mommy bloggers on YouTube and Twitter.
'Motrin-gate' proves the power of social media for marketers as well as how quickly marketers can be forced to buckle to a relatively small but vocal minority of people.
'Motrin-gate' proves the power of social media for marketers as well as how quickly marketers can be forced to buckle to a relatively small but vocal minority of people.

But as it turns out, J&J might have been a tad hasty in pulling down its ad. In doing so, it bowed to a vocal flash mob that represents a tiny fraction of moms, and Twitter, which itself attracts about 0.15% of the world's internet users each day, according to Alexa -- by the most generous possible estimate based on that data, about 1.1 million people in the U.S. And despite a storm of media attention, the ad -- together with a YouTube video put together by a mommy blogger on the controversy -- received less exposure than one 30-second spot on a cable news network.
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On the one hand, so-called Motrin-gate proves the power of social media for marketers. On the other, it proves how quickly marketers can be forced to buckle to a relatively small but vocal minority of people who can create "flash floods," as a Toronto Globe and Mail columnist described them, in e-mail boxes, Twitter queues or Google searches that get picked up and spread by mass media. Indeed, the flood that felled the ad started and ended in three days (see timeline).

Quiet before storm
It all started with an ad that generated zero online buzz during its first 45 days online at Motrin.com. Created by Taxi, New York, it featured a voice-over of a mom who carries her baby in a sling because it's good for her kid and she sees it as "a fashion statement" and validation of her as "an official mom." Alexa data suggests the Motrin was seen by as many as 15,000 people daily at its peak after it went up Sept. 30.

No one complained much, it would appear, until Nov. 15, when Barb Lattin of Colorado noticed a mention of the ad on a babywearing section of a Yahoo Group for devotees of "attachment parenting" and posted it on the blog related to her business, Perfectly Natural Photography.

Another Colorado-based blogger, Amy Gates of CrunchyDomesticGoddess.com, picked up on that and posted the first tweet on the subject just under five hours later. By the following Sunday, the Motrin ad controversy was generating as many as 300 tweets an hour, according to TrendRR.com. That helped move it to the top of Twitter's "trending topics" list, which in turn helped the original bloggers pitch the story to conventional news outlets.

Indeed, the person who hijacked Motrin's brand on Twitter and was among contributors to the criticism appeared to be aware as of Sunday night Nov. 16 of impending coverage by the likes of The New York Times (which covered the fracas on a blog), The Wall Street Journal, AP and Reuters. Later in the week, the person behind the Motrin handle tweeted that he had offered Kathy Widmer, VP-marketing for Motrin and other over-the-counter drugs at J&J's McNeil Consumer Healthcare, to turn over the account with "no strings" but had received no response. In response to a Twitter query, the Motrin account owner gave an e-mail address that appeared to point to a male Ruby on Rails programmer from Austin, Texas, but that person could not be reached to confirm that by deadline.

Subsequent coverage came from USA Today, the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune, too.

Minimal impact
Yet, despite all the fuss, not that many people ultimately paid attention. The two YouTube posts of the actual ad in question (which was removed from Motrin.com) drew a combined 216,000 views through Nov. 21. A YouTube video by mommy blogger and online retailer Katja Presnal piecing together the Motrin protest tweets got 63,556 views.

Even without subtracting duplicate views by the same people, which are impossible to know, that amounts to less exposure than running a single 30-second ad on a cable news network -- something even Motrin's relatively sparse $2 million media outlay in the first half of 2008 could easily outstrip.

What's more, data from Motrin.com's Alexa graph suggest about as many people saw the ad there without turning to social media in outrage -- averaging around 5,000 daily before the controversy broke -- as saw it during the week after it broke. And comments on the YouTube posts after the initial controversy appeared to run mostly positive to neutral.

In fact, most online buzz about Motrin-gate was either positive or neutral in tone toward J&J and the ads, according to analyses by Tom Martin, president of Zehnder Communications, New Orleans, and Lexalytics.

Meanwhile, the core group behind the Twitter storm numbered in the low four figures. A Google search on Monday indicated around 4,000 tweets on Twitter, and analyses by Mr. Martin using Radian6 data and by Lexalytics suggested around 1,500 tweets involving around 1,000 individuals using the #motrinmoms hash tag.

"If Motrin's brand managers were not just listening to the market, but accurately measuring it too, they might not have been so quick to panic and pull the ad," Lexalytics said in a blog post. Its analysis found that even among those using the #motrinmoms hash tag on Twitter, only about 35% of the tweets were negative, with the rest neutral or positive toward the ad.

Mr. Martin suggested in his blog that J&J should have kept the campaign in place, apologized to critics in whatever medium they had used to complain, and used the opportunity to engage in dialogue. In a second posting on Motrin.com Nov. 20, Ms. Widmer suggested she intends to do the last part, anyway.

Was it worth it?
Meanwhile, even some mommy bloggers saw signs the whole episode had hurt their community more than helped it. "Right or wrong, the rest of the web is now rolling its eyes, again, at our community," Erin Kotecki Vest said on Nov. 17 at QueenofSpainBlog.com. "I'll be honest, they are right. What happened this weekend went from smart, powerful activism to Palin-rally lynch mob."

Corporate marketers already knew about the power of mommy bloggers, she said. "They are buying ads, they are engaging women online. They are sponsoring trips, sending you even MORE free stuff. They are paying for YOU to consult for them. ... You have their attention. You have the power."

Ultimately, Ms. Presnal said she sympathizes with J&J's plight after having received at least two e-mails from Ms. Widmer last week. Reading from one, she noted that J&J had worked with focus groups of moms in developing the campaign.

"We listened extensively to moms, the insights about their lives, and how their pain impacts them," Ms. Presnal said, reading from Ms. Widmer's e-mail. She continued from the e-mail: "I think where this went wrong was the creative expression we used. ... The tone was intended to be real and lighthearted, but it came off as irreverent. ... We did conduct focus groups with moms. But truthfully they probably weren't extensive enough to uncover this."

"I think they truly believed they were doing a good job," Mr. Presnal said, but believes the research probably didn't include enough baby-wearing moms.

A Motrin-Gate Timeline

Sept. 30 - Johnson & Johnson posts an online video on Motrin.com featuring a voice-over of a mom who carries her baby in a sling because it's good for her kid and she sees it as "a fashion statement" and validation of her as "an official mom."

Nov. 14 - The first discoverable blog post on the video from MagicCitySlingers says the "Motrin ad lady" is looking tired and crazy because she's using a schwing-style sling, and should instead learn to use a non-schwing carrier correctly.

Nov. 15 (5:54 p.m.): Barb Lattin, a Fort Collins, Colo., mom sees a post about the Motrin ad on a Yahoo Group dedicated to "attachment parenting." Offended, Ms. Lattin, who specializes in photos of nursing moms as mementos, criticizes the ad on the blog for her business, Perfectly Natural Photography.

Nov. 15 (10:28 p.m.): Amy Gates of the Colorado-based CrunchyDomesticGoddess blog posts the first tweet on the ad at Twitter.

Nov. 15 (10:58 p.m.): Blogger Jessica Gottlieb (JessicaGottlieb.com) posts another tweet criticizing the Motrin ad.

Nov. 16: Ms. Gottlieb uses #motrinmoms tag to help keep track of tweets, and the tag hits the top of Twitter's "trending topics" (with a total of about 1,500 tweets among around 1,000 Twitter handles by Nov. 17). Blogger, online retailer and PR consultant Katja Presnal creates YouTube video showing anti-Motrin posts. About 300 blogs post on the controversy, and some of the most active begin contacting mainstream media outlets about the story.

Nov. 16: J&J shuts down Motrin website before 9 p.m. VP-marketing Kathy Widmer sends apology to people who had e-mailed complaints and says the campaign will be discontinued.

Nov. 17: J&J brings site back up with apology appended. Numerous news outlets begin covering controversy and J&J's retreat, including websites of New York Times, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, AP and Advertising Age.

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