BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- The diaper launch Procter & Gamble Co. is calling its biggest in 25 years is also producing major social-media and PR troubles as consumer complaints about Pampers Dry Max diapers make their way from Facebook and other online forums into mass-media coverage.
Online complaints about the diapers began when P&G switched to the new design of its super-premium Cruisers and Swaddlers lines in much of the country as early as last summer, well before changing packaging or launching marketing for Dry Max. The diapers removed the mesh liners in the old Pampers Cruisers and Swaddlers, along with much of the cottony fluff pulp, and replaced them with a new, more-absorbent chemical gel, producing a diaper that's 20% thinner but twice as absorbent as rival Huggies Little Movers, according to P&G ads from Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi, New York.
But since the official launch of the Dry Max campaign in March, complaints have only intensified on Facebook, online retailer review boards and other forums. The complaints increasingly focus not just on leaks or the feel of the new diapers but on diaper rashes, which some parents say are particularly severe and more like "chemical burns."
That has led to circulation of graphic diaper-rash photos via internet forums and stories recounting those complaints in a growing number of blogs and news media, including Reuters, the New York Daily News, Walletpop.com and ABCNews.com. Newspapers in Minneapolis and Chicago and local TV news stations in Seattle, San Francisco, San Antonio and Houston have jumped on the story, too, including this lengthy report yesterday from KHOU in Houston, replete with rare-for-TV images of inflamed baby-bottoms.
Fighting Facebook comments
A "Pampers Bring Back the OLD Cruisers/Swaddlers" page on Facebook now numbers more than 3,600 fans. The brand's official Facebook page has more than 220,000 fans, but discussion on the page's wall has been largely consumed in recent weeks over complaints and debate about the Dry Max diapers.
That led Jodi Allen, P&G's VP-North American baby care, to post a statement on the site April 29. In it, she notes that Dry Max diapers were tested on 20,000 babies with 300,000 changes before hitting market, and that P&G also has taken complaints seriously since the launch, assembling a team of "respected outside pediatricians and dermatologists" to review safety data.
"This comprehensive evaluation did not find any evidence whatsoever that Dry Max is behind the diaper rashes that some moms have reported," she said. "Diaper rashes, as you all know, can be a mystery. On average, babies get them three to four times a year, and sometimes they are severe."
She also said Pampers has surveyed moms nationwide in recent weeks, finding 70% prefer Dry Max to the diapers they usually use because they're "thin, flexible and one step better for the environment."
P&G spokesman Bryan McCleary said Ms. Allen's statement had been posted both on Pampers' fan page and on the critics' page, but has been removed from the critics' page.
Positive reactions among testers
The brand also points to Parenting magazine mom testers, 92% of whom said they liked Dry Max and 84% of whom said they'd recommend the diapers to other moms. The company also notes that Dry Max has gotten more than 500 positive posts on blogs that reach around 13.2 million visitors about the diaper to date.
A small backlash to the backlash has formed on social media, too, in the form of an "I Love Pampers Dry Max" Facebook fan page started last week that now has 24 members. The founder, Nena Parent, a mom from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, said in an e-mail, "I totally understand there are a lot of other parents with babies having problems" but that she's not one of them and wanted to show there are parents "using and loving the product." She said people expressing their love for the product on Pampers' Facebook page now face attack by critics, another reason she decided to start her own forum.
P&G also has assembled written and video statements from pediatricians and pediatric dermatologists from Los Angeles, Chicago, Cincinnati and New York that back the safety of the Dry Max diapers.
"With the data that I've seen, I don't think it's a possibility that the newer Pampers with Dry Max are causing any chemical burns," said Susan Loiselle, a New York pediatrician and clinical professor of pediatrics at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York in one video statement. "It doesn't make any scientific sense whatsoever. The research does not support it. And the product really has been shown to be safe."
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has received complaints about the diapers too and is investigating, but has not called for a recall.
Bad news on Google
One thing that's clear: Pampers is getting blamed online for a lot of diaper rashes, in large part because of the media and blog reports. A Google search of U.S. mentions of "rash" and "Pampers" without any mention of rival Huggies returns more than 40,000 hits for the past 30 days. Numerous posts and online reviews note babies got rashes, or in some cases what were described as "chemical burns" after using Dry Max diapers, which often went away after a switch to other diapers. By contrast, Huggies is linked to "rash" in only around 700 online mentions where Pampers isn't also included in the U.S. over the same period, according to Google.
What's less clear, however, is whether there's been any increase in diaper rash at all in the U.S. since the Dry Max diapers started shipping last year or how much, if any, of the rashes can be blamed on the diapers. Pediatricians interviewed in local news reports haven't seen any increase in visits or reports regarding diaper rash. Google Insights shows searches on the phrase "diaper rash" are actually down slightly in the past 12 months from the prior year in the U.S., indicating no significant increase in parents encountering the problem and seeking information.
Symphony IRI data do show a 1.9% increase in unit sales of baby ointments and creams in the 12 weeks ended April 18 vs. the same period a year ago. The growth rate is down, though, from the 3.8% volume increase in baby ointment for all of 2009, according to IRI data from Deutsche Bank.
The increase in the volume of diaper-rash cream comes despite declining volume of actual diaper sales both for the year and the more recent quarter, which would suggest an increase in cases nationwide as the Dry Max diapers have rolled out.
Recession to blame?
But another possible explanation would be diaper rash increasing because parents changed diapers less often to save money during the recession. Supporting this theory would be the fact that the growth rate in ointment sales actually slowed in the past quarter even as Dry Max shipments ramped up but the economy improved.
None of the social or conventional media firestorm has singed Pampers' sales so far, though much of the mainstream media attention has come only in the past two weeks. P&G's diaper share was up 2.2 percentage points to 41.2% in the four weeks ended April 18, according to Nielsen data from Sanford C. Bernstein on a volume increase of 7.4%. That was led largely by the Dry Max rollout, and doesn't include Walmart, which gave the launch major merchandising support with end-cap displays.
By contrast, Kimberly-Clark reported its North American diaper volume was down 5% last quarter, which the company blamed on lower promotional activity compared to a higher-promotion period a year ago.
But K-C is hitting back hard at Dry Max now, launching a TV ad last week from WPP's JWT, New York. The ad does not discuss rashes or leaks but claims the new Pampers Cruisers sag 50% more than Huggies Little Movers. K-C gave the ad heavy play relatively rare for the diaper category on NBC's Thursday night prime-time lineup last week.