How Tide Pods Challenge led to last-minute edits for Super Bowl

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Last February, when Tide's Super Bowl campaign—which gently ribbed Big Game ad cliches—pretty much stole the ad spotlight, few knew just how close Procter & Gamble had been to a major fail.

For weeks prior to the game, social media had been going wild with memes of kids eating toxic Tide Pods, and the "Tide Pods Challenge," as it was dubbed, not only threatened to hurt the brand, but threw its planned "It's a Tide Ad" campaign—which featured the pods—into disarray.

"That was not a good place for us to be," said Kimberly Doebereiner, director of brand building integrated communications for P&G brands in a presentation this week at the Cincinnati chapter of the American Advertising Federation, talking about the last-minute changes the brand and its agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, scrambled to make. "We were actively trying to figure out what to do without calling more attention to it. [The memes were] shocking and actually highly upsetting to watch."

P&G, while resisting the urge to rail against the social-media meme for fear of fanning the flames, in January released a video from New England Patriots Tight End Rob Gronkowski telling people not to put Pods in their mouths.

But the problem for P&G went beyond the memes themselves: The Super Bowl ads in the can—the ultimate versions of which won the campaign a Film Grand Prix at Cannes—had every single product vignette (think: beer, soda, diamonds and P&G's own Old Spice and Mr. Clean) "filmed with a Pod," says Doebereiner. "We had to change it the night before we shipped it."

The fix: Packages of Tide liquid replaced all Pods or packages of Pods in the campaign.

Incredibly, says Doebereiner, the final Super Bowl effort did the brand a big favor: It changed the public and social-media conversation away from the Tide Pods Challenge, and handily accomplished what the original brief set out to do: "'Make Tide the most-loved brand in the Super Bowl,'" she said.

She also noted that as unusual as P&G's Super Bowl buy on NBC was—it included four spots plus integration into the intro of another commercial pod—it would have been even more elaborate had the company had its way.

"One of the biggest debates we had with the Super Bowl last year with Tide was that we wanted to add more ads, 2-second ads, and they were like, 'No, we're not adding more ads,'" said Doebereiner, who's also the internal lead on the new North American Fabric Care agency that includes people from Publicis Groupe, WPP and Omnicom Group.

Network efforts to decrease commercial loads were to blame, she said, and the same efforts are affecting what P&G is trying to do next year as well. "I was meeting with the NFL and Fox the other day, and they said, 'We're not adding another ad,'" she said.

But Doebereiner doesn't blame the networks. Despite efforts to reduce commercial loads in programs, she said, "If you watch regular TV, ad loads seem high."

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