What to Do When Social Media Spreads Marketing Myth

Marketers Wrestle With False Campaigns, Rumors and Whether to Respond

By Published on .

BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- James Thatcher is one of the more internet-famous brand managers in Procter & Gamble history.

He was the target of an open letter from a disgruntled consumer about the Always "Have a Happy Period" campaign. The letter has had remarkable staying power on blogs and Twitter since it was first published in March 2007, with about 64,500 Google hits and counting (some women also report having been e-mailed the letter several times).

How to be a myth buster
Sometimes it's hard to resist the urge to break "news" on Twitter or Facebook or via e-mail -- especially if it's a bit of industry gossip. But here are some basic rules to keep in mind.
  • Never trust; always verify.
  • Think before you tweet or hit forward.
  • If it's too good to be true, it just might be.
  • That unhinged, ridiculous story your great-aunt sent you about catching AIDS from a payphone? Keep that in mind.
  • It's not always up on business stories, but check Snopes.com or other urban-legend sites.
  • Pick up the phone and call the company yourself.
  • There's just one problem: Mr. Thatcher doesn't exist.

    The letter was originally written by a former advertising copywriter for the humor site McSweeneys.net, under the header "Open Letters to People or Entities Who are Unlikely to Respond," more for fun than as an authentic consumer gripe.

    It's part of a growing body of marketing myths and misinformation in social media -- a sort of subsection of urban legends that can persist even when correct accounts in conventional news media set the record straight.

    Myth: P&G and SC Johnson pulled their ads off the Glenn Beck show on Fox News. Fact: Those companies never authorized their ads run on the show in the first place. Myth: Johnson & Johnson took forever to respond to a Twitter controversy regarding an online Motrin ad. Fact: The company responded within 24 hours on a weekend to the complaints, not the days or weeks often cited.

    Don't believe the hype
    But being bogus hasn't hurt the "Happy Period" letter's currency online. One reason for its endurance may be that it subtly feeds the myth that the executive behind the campaign was a guy, one of those infamous P&G marketing suits dictating to women how they should feel. In fact, two marketing directors and a group president are among the women who have greenlighted the "Happy Period" campaign from Leo Burnett Co., Chicago, over the years.

    Wendi Aarons of Austin, Texas, the author of the letter, said social-media isn't the only place the letter has turned up. In an e-mail she said it also has been quoted on a couple of radio stations and in a San Francisco Chronicle column. Some teen girls started a fan page for her and her letter on Facebook (albeit with only 109 members). And a message-board discussion on urban-legend site Snopes.com is the top listing for a Google search on "happy period" and in the first page of organic listings on "Always."

    But P&G has largely ignored the letter. Ms. Aarons said she's never been contacted by the company in the 30 months since the letter started making the rounds, though traffic logs for her blog show many P&G people have visited.

    P&G's reticence has left her husband, who runs a social-media company, "very flummoxed that they didn't capitalize on the dialogue at all," she said.

    Flummoxed he may be, but P&G's silence may have been the best move. The mythical letter seems not to have hurt Always one bit. Its dollar market share is up 5.8 percentage points since the "Happy Period" campaign came out and 2.6 points to 52.4% since Ms. Aarons' letter started making the rounds, according to Information Resources Inc. data reported by Deutsche Bank.

    80 blips
    "It can be a very polarizing campaign," a spokesman for P&G said of "Happy Period." But the complaints come mainly from women who prefer tampons. The original consumer insight behind the campaign -- that pad users tend to feel less negative about their periods and see them as a normal, healthy part of life -- appears to have been right, given the brand's growth the past three years.

    Perhaps that growth could have been greater had it not been for Ms. Aarons' letter, but probably not. Brand sentiment for Always and the "Happy Period" campaign, as measured by Infegy's Social Radar social-media-monitoring system, has remained overwhelmingly positive since it first appeared in March 2007. The letter accounts for about 80 blips per month on the Social Radar, compared with more than 52,000 broadly for the brand, said Adam Coomes, president of Infegy.

    All this raises the question of whether brands should ever respond to social-media criticism of their ads, said Jim Nail, chief marketing and strategy officer of TNS Cymfony (at least through this week, after which he plans to leave to pursue a career in clean technology or renewable energy).

    Mr. Nail's answer is: "Probably not."

    Social-media controversies that speak to the core of a brand promise -- such as the YouTube video in which (now former) Domino's employees adulterated food, or another showing people breaking into Kryptonite bike locks -- need to be addressed, he said.

    But people who just don't like ads typically pose less risk.

    Letting it go
    In a way, P&G's nonresponse to Ms. Aarons' letter these past 30 months has been the mirror opposite of J&J's rapid response to those Motrin ads that offended some women who carry their babies in slings.

    Wendi Arrons, author of the McSweeneys.net letter.
    Wendi Arrons, author of the McSweeneys.net letter.
    "I'm not at all convinced you need to respond to everything," said Pete Blackshaw, exec VP-strategic services of Nielsen Online. "There's certainly some speculation that J&J, by responding early to the blogger moms, may have ... given more life to something that otherwise may have died."

    Infegy's data suggest that ad and media-buying controversies don't have much lasting impact either way. While negative brand sentiment briefly surpassed positive during the Motrin ad controversy last November, the indexes returned to their previous levels fairly quickly.

    Calls for boycotts of P&G over its supposed ad pullout from Mr. Beck's show may have had a modest effect on sentiment about the company in August. But sentiment has been moderately in favor of P&G among people discussing the matter online, according to Social Radar data, particularly once information started coming from conventional news media rather than social media around Aug. 19.

    One thing's for sure: The letter to that fictional brand manager has been a boon to Ms. Aarons' career. Besides helping her launch her own blog, she said, it also helped her get a literary agent for a forthcoming book.

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