November 24, 2008...10:51 pm

You could say that IF you were one of us

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one-of-usI told myself I wasn’t going to chime in on the Motrin Moms marketing fiasco, but I just couldn’t help myself. However, rather than simply weighing in on whether or not I think the ad aimed at babywearing moms was offensive, I would rather examine how this marketing debacle validated the simple fact that social media has changed our culture.

Okay, maybe it hasn’t changed for the majority of the population, but it certainly is changing rapidly.

For some background on the Motrin Moms fiasco, take a look at Neville Hobson’s post or Jeremiah Owyang’s. The original ad is posted on YouTube despite being pulled from the Motrin website.

Last Monday, Kathy Widmer, Vice President of Marketing for McNeil Consumer Healthcare, the company that owns the Motrin brand, posted an apology on the Johnson and Johnson corporate blog.

Since I don’t have children, Widmer, a mother of three, probably has a lot more in common with the women who found the Motrin ad offensive than I do, but she was not one of us.

Winston Churchill

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Winston Churchill’s definition of a gentleman was one who was only rude intentionally. This intention is what sets the gentleman, or gentlewoman, apart. Gentlemen are experts in the explicit and implicit rules of engagement within a given culture. Gentlemen are only ever consciously and deliberately inappropriate; never because of naivety or ignorance.

Knowing the scope of this campaign, I have to believe that a lot of research was done on the front end — it just wasn’t the right kind of research. What they probably crunched were numbers; demographics, buying patterns, lifestyle, income, etc.

They looked at the women they were targeting as likely having higher incomes than the national average, college educated and they may have even put together a profile of a woman who identifies with the female characters on Sex in the City, participates in social causes and describes her own sense of humor as “edgy”.

In this case, something they didn’t weigh carefully became the most important factor: social media engagement.

In my communication within social networks where I have closer relationships, my humor might be deemed as edgy, colorful or even cheeky. Mostly, I can get away with this without offending others within the social networks where I participate because I have relationships that grew familiar enough over time to support this kind of exchange.

The bottom line is that the rules of engagement for marketers have changed because online communities of individuals demand that the communication be more organically human.

We expect better behavior because most of us also create content, albeit on a smaller scale, and we have learned how to generate interest in our work via networks along the social web; this means that we have taken the time to develop relationships. We understand what it takes to be a gentleman (in the Churchill sense of the word) and, right or wrong, we expect others to follow suit.

Many of us tend to resent big brands who don’t take the time to use the available technology to communicate with us before they need us.

The level of acceptable inappropriate behavior is directly proportional to the level of familiarity you have cultivated. I am often intentionally rude with those I know well — this is evidence of our closeness. A stranger engaging in the same kind of behavior would not be tolerated quite so well.

I believe that whether the ad was inappropriate is actually irrelevant. If the Motrin brand, or other brands at McNeil Consumer Healthcare, continue to use even the most innocuous, inoffensive messaging on the social web without participating with us, or at least listening to us, they will continue to fail — maybe with a little less embarrassment, but they will still fail.

Widmer goes on in her apology to say, “One bright spot is that we have learned through this process – in particular, the importance of paying close attention to the conversations that are taking place online. It has also brought home the importance of taking a broader look at what we say and how it may be interpreted.”

To me, focusing on the content of the conversations is just as error prone if you don’t understand the level of familiarity those involved in the community have cultivated. As members of a family or a community, we will communicate differently with one another than we will tolerate from any outsider — that’s just human nature.

Stop thinking of us as publics/numbers/demographics and start thinking of us as a culture.

At some point, merely listening won’t be enough. More brands, especially big brands, will either need to learn to engage in social media culture at all levels, or enlist the help of social media natives to carry the message to the community.

Photo by Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton

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  • I watched this entire debate flair up over a couple of days and have a pretty spectacular outcome. The entire time I was reading the discussion (not participating as I didn’t have an opinion either way), I marveled at the power and immediacy of social media in general and Twitter specifically.

    I also marveled that Motrin got it so very wrong. Since I wasn’t offended by the ad, even as a Mom who wore her baby, I didn’t understand the reason for the passion behind the protest; but, I did understand the passion. I also understood that someone on the Motrin team was going to be in huge trouble.

    Your post made me think of a tweet today in a conversation started by @geoffliving asking about lessons learned from people who had been on Twitter for more than a year. Kami Watson Huyse said “Don’t assume familiarity when there is none.”

    I can’t help but think that’s exactly what Motrin did, they assumed familiarity with a group of moms when there was none. They didn’t learn about the community they were aiming for in any real way (aside from your points of demographics), and they got slapped for it.

    Lots of lessons to be learned from the whole thing!

  • Something else that really struck me about the ad was the narrator’s character. That mom doesn’t sound genuine, like she’s pretending to want to be a mom.

    It ties in with what you’re getting at with the point about being a gentleman and audience knowledge. If you know someone, then you can get away with “acting” rude because your audience knows it’s for humor’s sake. In this case, we are meeting this motrin mom for the first time. And even if you aren’t offended by the ad, I am not sure who wants to hang out with her. I don’t.

  • “The bottom line is that the rules of engagement for marketers have changed because online communities of individuals demand that the communication be more organically human.”

    This is what I’ve been ruminating about in my brain lately. Businesses, brands, products, services….it’s not about “using social media,” it’s about being organic, real, human, and accessible….shortening the gap between the consumer and the product pushers.

    even this part “At some point, merely listening won’t be enough. More brands, especially big brands, will either need to learn to engage in social media culture at all levels, or enlist the help of social media natives to carry the message to the community.”

    it’s true…big brands need to engage in the SM culture…but not for the sake of trend and i hope that social media natives won’t just offer their services for the sake of the profit but because they believe in those brands. the value that is added to a brand that is in touch with its citizens is much more powerful than one that simply proxies its interest in its consumers.

    still thinking about it all…

  • I agree with some of what you said, Shannon, but I think the “social media people” need to be careful not to become the “social media elite.” Sure, a bunch of moms got mad about something and forced a company to change course. But does that mean the Motrin Moms are right or just loud and unrelenting?

    Suggesting that companies can’t do anything right if they haven’t consulted with “us” first is a bit cocky.

    I can’t help but wonder if Twitter and other social media networks have become the new home for the squeaky wheel.

    The old saying, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” is now amplified, which means the potential for knee-jerk reactions by corporations and politicians also is at an all-time high. And rarely have knee-jerk reactions ever resulted in the best strategies for anything.

    I’m a firm believer in a little anarchy now and then being a good thing. But I also believe that power corrupts even those who start out with the best of intentions.

  • Are bloggers the new “special interest group?” « 5Ws

    [...] friend of mine recently posted a blog entry about the Motrin Moms and how “this marketing debacle validated the simple fact that social [...]

  • An interesting comment from someone at Third Tuesday Toronto last night (Steve Rubel was the guest speaker). Let me set the stage… the inevitable question re: the Motrin affair (Motringate as I like to call it) was posed to Steve. Standard answers were given. I couldn’t bite my tongue and had to pose the comment about how the ‘over-reaction’ by some of the mommybloggers may have in fact damaged their credibility (something others have pointed out). I had barely uttered the words when this girl yells out ‘That’s right!!’ The crowd spun around to look as she went on ‘They [Motrin] were telling the truth. I’m a mom and I didn’t see a problem with the ad.’

    The consensus seemed to be that while Motrin didn’t play its cards right, the outcry did not represent the thoughts/beliefs of all of those that the ad was targeted at.

  • Taking on PRJack a bit here. I’d suggest that maybe the group you were with may be a bit biased as well.

    It is obvious that the outcry over the Motrin ad doesn’t reflect the views of all women. I would also hazard to guess (and I may be wrong) is that a decent amount of those that attend a Third Tuesday event are the “Sex and the City” type that Shannon talks about.

    Often people in advertising/PR see outcries over ad as an attack on creativity. So there often a knee jerk reaction to defend it. In fact (I used to carry my son around), the point here wasn’t whether or not “babywearing” could take a toll of someone’s back…it was the attitude of the ad, diminishing the idea of it being a “fashion statement” that makes one an “official mom”. And the “but what about me?” line goes against the sentiment of being a selfless, child-oriented mom (or dad).

  • Ad Age had a nice write up yesterday that has a good bit of facts.

    And a few more facts can be found here:

  • Shannon, your post very deftly points out the deeper issues facing big brands today. Fast paced communications can tank or elevate your brand in seconds. Motrin, Nike and others have seen the wrath of the consumer rise from annoyance to a full on assault in 0 to 60 and neither seemed equipped to adequately address the issue. The end user messaging is becoming less essential than the engagement prior to messaging. In the age of “friending” people buy because they like and trust you not because you spent millions on glitzy ads. It will be interesting to see how quickly the big brand ship turns its rudders.

  • Wow…looks like I’m on the opposite site of the fence with the popular thought on this issue too.

    Motrin got it *right*. EXACTLY right.

    I’ll echo the sentiments that many folks in the social media field are becoming elitist, and in their efforts to prove the value of social media are becoming overly self-congratulatory every time a blogger gets something right or a viral campaign is spectacularly successful.

    Well, even a broken clock is right twice a day. We shouldn’t be so quick to trumpet our ’successes’, and we especially shouldn’t congratulate ourselves for making a mountain out of molehill and missing the point of social media, which is, of course…

    …to be social and develop relationships.

    For the record, I am a social media professional who manages online community for a half-dozen Fortune 500 companies. I, too, face the difficult struggle of proving ROI and value for brands. I’ve been in this business for 10 years.

    There is a huge danger in thinking in terms of ‘us’ who get it, and ‘them’ that don’t. The operative word should be WE.

    Both brand and consumer working together.

    So why do I say Motrin got it exactly right?

    Simple. They went to a party. They tried to tell a funny story and it didn’t go over so well.

    They apologized. They *instantly* recognized their mistake and swiftly made a heart-felt, sincere apology. That’s what they should have done.

    In this crazy 24/7 anything-you-say-can-be-broadcast instantly world, mistakes–a slip of the tongue–are bound to happen.

    It’s how one responds to the mistake is what counts. We are all human, and we all mistakes.

    Let’s not castigate Motrin for making trying to make a point with some humor. They were trying to connect with folks who purchase their product. Some folks appreciated the humor, some didn’t. Those who didn’t, were very vocal about not appreciating the joke, and Motrin immediately apologized.

    That’s how relationships are supposed to work. Kudos to Motrin for ‘getting it’.

    And boo on those in the social media field who are trumpeting this incident as a failure.

    Once again, Shannon–many thanks for starting a lively conversation. I might disagree with you on this topic, but that’s what makes for a good party, isn’t it? :-)

  • To Mark

    We’re (at least me) are looking it from two different viewpoints. From my vantage point, I’m primarily looking at the creative. I think it was poorly done and yes, I can easily see how it could be offensive. That’s one story.

    The second story is the response by many mothers who put up videos on YouTube, etc. Are they representative of the majority of mothers? Or, more importantly, would most mothers find the ad offensive (maybe not to the same extent a others)? Is this a case of a few mothers complaining and that’s all we see so we assume that most mothers feel the same way?

    The third is, as you point out, are social media types being to self-congratulating on this? Is this a 24-hour story, a mere blip on the screen that will be soon forgotten about…except for some social media consultants who use it endlessly as a case study?

    I’m just trying to point out two issues. The level of offensiveness of the ad to mothers vs. the level of effectiveness by the social media response as being spun by social media gurus.

  • Like you, Shannon, I had planned to keep my mouth shut on this whole Motrin thing, but I can’t hold it in any longer. I believe in this story there’s a piece of the puzzle missing, and it’s the big piece that goes right in the middle: How extensively did Motrin test the ad? In the backlash against the backlash, many people seem to assume that J&J must have conducted tests, but isn’t it possible that they removed the ad so quickly because they lacked confidence in their testing? In effect, perhaps they saw the outcry on social media as the big focus group they never had.

    Your point “Stop thinking of us as publics/numbers/demographics and start thinking of us as a culture” rings true both on and off social networks. As people continue to become ever-more sophisticated in their consumption of all media, their demands for genuineness and real relationships will keep rising. Perhaps the greatest way Motrin could now become part of our community would be to offer itself up as a case study, sharing details, including how they tested this ad. As Mark states, they’ve shown that they listened – taking this next step would engender enormous good will.

  • Barb Chamberlain

    A tangential comment that belongs on a blog post I hope someone writes (hint hint)–

    Sherry quotes Kami Watson Huyse saying, “Don’t assume familiarity when there is none.” That sounds like important advice for brands and corporate/institutional Twitter accounts.

    Tangent begins here–

    For individuals, though, doesn’t Twitter invite a certain level of familiarity where none exists, and then real familiarity is built through subsequent exchanges? If you don’t dive into the Twitstream somehow, you won’t get wet–and you won’t learn to swim.

    Example: A PR person I don’t know personally tweeted a question a couple of days ago about what flavors of jelly beans to serve at a wedding.

    I responded because my creativity was challenged by the question of 2 other flavors to go with Dr. Pepper-flavored jelly beans. I ended up suggesting foil-covered chocolate eggs because the wedding is near Easter, an idea this person liked. We then shared our mutual dislike of Peeps.

    Voila, familiarity where none existed before.

    Now, this isn’t brand-building on my part (for my personal brand, or that of my institution–that’s a separate Twitter account and I would never have done this from that account). I’m neither a candy manufacturer nor a wedding consultant. It was just fun.

    Seems to me it’s also how someone becomes “one of us”–through participation (not rude or offensive participation, as Shannon points out).

    It’s kind of like being the new kid in school: do you join the kickball game on your own, or wait to be invited? You may never play if you don’t venture forth.

    The challenge for corporate accounts will be figuring out where they can feel included enough to try some things out, and potentially fail. Along these lines there’s a recent Social Media Insider post that I tweeted: “Dare to be embarrassed” & other advice on social media:

    Maybe this wasn’t a tangent after all.


  • I’m really sorry that I haven’t had the chance to respond to any of these comments sooner. The truth is that I’ve just been very busy.

    @Sherry and @Barb – I agree; Kami Huyse’s warning against assuming familiarity is wise and thought-provoking (as is her blog!). I’m definitely keeping it in mind for future posts.

    @jenn – We’re all still thinking about all of this and your worries are the things that worry us all. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

    @Ari – I’m just trying to make an observation. I think it’s important to observe phenomena and figure out how best to navigate them without passing judgment on people for their reactions. The people behind the Motrin campaign were trying to reach these moms. I truly believe they failed to do so, whether or not that impacts their bottom line or they do things differently moving forward remains to be seen. My thinking is just that it makes sense to form relationships — of course not with every person, but with well-connected people within the social networks they were trying to influence.

    @Mark – I respect your bringing the contrary to the party, but I hardly think anyone at Motrin got it EXACTLY right — and I’m sure the people at Motrin know they didn’t get it right. I hardly believe that their objective was to anger a bunch of influential moms.

    @PRJack – I think you’re right — I don’t think the *content* was the problem in that ad — it was the *delivery*. The people behind the Motrin campaign didn’t do the necessary work on the front-end to form relationships with the people they intended to reach on Twitter. Humor without context often leads to misunderstanding without laughter.

    @Kellye – You do raise some very good points (you’re such the smart one!). It would be very interesting to know whether or not they lacked confidence in their own testing. I also agree that offering their work up as a case study for the community to learn from would be a great service to us all!

    @Barb – I also really love your anecdote about your chocolate egg suggestion and shared distaste for Peeps (I really don’t care for them either ;). And, the new kid in school analogy is spot on — you have to put yourself out there and participate, but with a genuine I’m-here–to-make-friends-and-share-great-information spirit.

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