This morning, Annie told me about a Motrin ad that a bunch of mom-bloggers were angry about because it was critical of babywearing. She was really upset about it, and convinced that it was an intentional slam on mothers. Since I work in marketing, and Annie majored in Sociology, we tend to have conversations like this where Annie says advertising is evil, and I try to defend it.
In this case, I told her that I doubted it was anything intentional, and that it was probably a case of design-by-committee. Still, I asked her to send me the link so I could check the video out, and figured it would be a good conversation starter at work. Once I watched the video, though, I was startled by how bad it was. I could easily see why people were offended, and as I dug around online to find the details, what emerged was a fascinating story about a big company whose attempt to brand with their target audience backfired badly, and forced them to cancel an entire ad campaign.
To make a long story short (check out this Advertising Age article for all the gory details), the video was posted on Motrin’s website a few weeks ago. Last weekend, at the end of International Babywearing Week, an incredible combination of outraged blog posts, Twitter users, and YouTube replies led to the entire site being pulled offline on Sunday. It was put back up on Monday with an apology.
Here’s the ad itself, and a transcript in case it goes offline. I encourage you to watch it, because the tone of the message is what sparked this whole thing.
“Wearing your baby seems to be in fashion. I mean, in theory it’s a great idea. There’s the front baby carrier, sling, schwing, wrap, pouch. And who knows what else they’ve come up with. Wear your baby on your side, your front, go hands free. Supposedly, it’s a real bonding experience. They say that babies carried close to the bod tend to cry less than others. But what about me? Do moms that wear their babies cry more than those who don’t? I sure do! These things put a ton of strain on your back, your neck, your shoulders. Did I mention your back?! I mean, I’ll put up with the pain because it’s a good kind of pain; it’s for my kid. Plus, it totally makes me look like an official mom. And so if I look tired and crazy, people will understand why.”
I think this ad fails on two fronts. First, they were clearly going for a tongue-in-cheek self-deprecating tone of voice, but mainly due to the voiceover actress they chose, that sarcasm is almost entirely lost in the reading. Secondly, rather than targeting mothers in general, they targeted attachment-parenting mothers — a group that tends to already feel outside the mainstream and subject to ridicule. The combination of these two factors resulted in an ad that was actually offensive, rather than funny — at least in the minds of the target audience.
Beth Dunn has a nice summary of why so many moms were offended:
Most of the uproar seems to be at the condescending tone and content of the ad, mainly the idea that:
- Moms wear babies in slings as a fashion statement, or to be trendy
- Wearing babies in slings is a new thing
- Moms are crazy
Although the ad doesn’t come right out and say it, I think another underlying message is that moms secretly resent having to carry kids. The implication that caring for her kids causes a mom so much pain that she needs a pill to solve it makes mothering itself seem like a disease that requires treating.
In response to the sudden and overwhelming flood of negative feedback, Motrin’s marketing department reacted pretty quickly. Since events came to a head over the weekend, they quickly pulled the entire site offline while they figured out their response. By Monday, they had put the site back online with an apology on the front page:
“With regard to the recent Motrin advertisement, we have heard you.
On behalf of McNeil Consumer Healthcare and all of us who work on the Motrin Brand, please accept our sincere apology.
We have heard your complaints about the ad that was featured on our website. We are parents ourselves and take feedback from moms very seriously.
We are in the process of removing this ad from all media. It will, unfortunately, take a bit of time to remove it from our magazine advertising, as it is on newsstands and in distribution.
Thank you for your feedback. Its very important to us.”
Vice President of Marketing
McNeil Consumer Healthcare
Even better, they sent a personal email to every blog they could find that had posted about the issue. Seriously, almost every blog post I found on the issue had an addendum saying “I just got this email from Motrin:”
I am the Vice President of Marketing for McNeil Consumer Healthcare. I have responsibility for the Motrin Brand, and am responding to concerns about recent advertising on our website. I am, myself, a mom of 3 daughters.
We certainly did not mean to offend moms through our advertising. Instead, we had intended to demonstrate genuine sympathy and appreciation for all that parents do for their babies. We believe deeply that moms know best and we sincerely apologize for disappointing you. Please know that we take your feedback seriously and will take swift action with regard to this ad. We are in process of removing it from our website. It will take longer, unfortunately, for it to be removed from magazine print as it is currently on newstands and in distribution.
Reaction around the office has pretty much mirrored what I’m reading from other industry blogs. Concensus opinion seems to be that while the speed with which they reacted was good, they could have avoided the whole problem by reaching out to their target audience to begin with. At least two bloggers have suggested rewrites. But mostly, everyone is impressed at the speed that this became a serious problem.
Within 24 hours, “motrinmoms” was the #1 search term on Twitter, and over the course of the weekend, search results for Motrin took a noticeable shift to negative feedback. As Gene Grabowski, chair of the crisis and litigation practice at Levick Strategic Communications notes,
“We now have indisputable proof that online marketing, YouTube and Twitter and all that it encompasses is meaningful and has arrived. We are seeing real consequences to a mistake. If [social networks] didn’t matter, you wouldn’t see this type of reaction from J&J or consumers.”
One final note: when a major PR blunder like this happens, it’s tempting to conclude that the people involved were somehow out of touch with the target market, and that someone lost their job. Well, a blogger with a friend at the ad agency who created this campaign says the copywriter is no longer with the agency — She’s on maternity leave.