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Motrin Feels the Pain

(Updated link from Seth Godin – adds to this theme of this post, in that TV is a broadcast, push medium)

If you’re an avid marketing blog reader and writer like me, you probably logged on this morning and were surprised to read about the debacle for the Motrin brand around its new 45-second commercial.  Many people are offering advice and lessons, but let me be the first to say this and other inevitable controversies will destroy the TV commercial marketing model.

In case you haven’t heard the buzz, here’s a summary of the Motrin issue: Its new ad (above) attempts to connect with moms by talking about how some people “wear their babies” in things like wraps and Baby Bjorns (my wife’s choice for our kids, btw). The ad is an attempt by Motrin to convince mothers that the brand “feels their pain.” But a certain, very vocal set of moms is inflicting pain on the brand. They find the language of the ad offensive, and they have started a “Twitter Storm” of sharing their anger with friends and followers. The brand has since taken down its entire website, and is sending a letter to some angry customers.

Many important mom and marketing bloggers have hit on key lessons. For example, Dave Knox makes the great point that brands must continually monitor what people are saying about their brand. And Karoli wonders why the brand didn’t test this ad in some focus groups that have… um… moms with babies. Adam Kmiec counters that the brand team lacks courage.

But I think the “meta lesson” here is that this shows how hard it is to win with interruptive commercials. Let me first say that I’ve been there. Working on the Tide brand at P&G, I made a few ads that pissed people off. We ran a campaign called “Family Ties” with commercials that showcased family challenges, and how Tide could help solve problems and increase bonds. A lot of people loved the ads, but we always got our fair share of angry letters. People complained when we portrayed an interracial couple, and again when we featured a 40-something new mom. With each occasion we huddled as a team to consider our reaction and whether to pull the plug or not. We survived each scare, but this was back in the late ’90s, before the modern media world arrived…

Today, both general consumer groups and special interests have powerful tools at their disposal. Blogs, discussion boards, and Twitter are now used to spread and incite anger quickly. Search results keep the mistakes top-of-mind for years.

And while the pressure from consumers increases, the need to be noticed is forcing advertisers to take more risks. Brands are buying edgy creative that catches attention above the other 3,000 ads we see each day. And while they might connect with their majority target market, they end up inciting the vocal minority groups (who never asked to have the ad shoved in their faces).

The result is inevitable: GM is blasted for showing a robot that commits suicide. Snickers pulls its ad in which two guys accidentally kiss, and another with Mr. T firing candy at an effeminate jogger. State Farm pulled an ad that humiliated people who bike to work. There is even an organization called Fathers and Husbands that regularly protests ads that make fun of white male men.

What should the GMs, Snickers, State Farms, Motrins, and every other mass marketer of the world do about this constant, growing risk of angering an ever-more-vocal percentage of the population? It’s simple: Stop working to create the perfect 30-second story to interrupt them, and start figuring out ways to add value to their lives.

8 Responses to “Motrin Feels the Pain”

  1. Adam Kmiec says:

    We clearly need to chat about this over a beer :) What I will say is why isn’t their more of a brew-ha-ha over the portrayal of dads as idiots in ads?

    I’ll also bet that 12 agencies this morning had projects killed because of this situation. To take it to an extreme…if companies didn’t run any ads for fear of backlash, consumers would suffer. There would be no money to fund tv shows, radio stations, web sites, etc. Do we not all have a role in the community? Shouldn’t we be responsible in how we play our role? Asking for boycotts, people to be fired, etc. isn’t what I’d call being responsible. Motrin has a twitter profile. People can engage directly with them…responsibly :)

    BTW- The first beer is on you.

  2. Here’s the thing, Motrin could take it all back, if they really wanted to be funny/clever and edgy they’d be spending the day today putting their logo on 25,000 baby carriers and handing them out to the mommies.

    We may have just done them an enormous favor.

  3. [...] Owyang? provided great details and analysis, and Bob Gilbreath gave a great explanation of the lack of meaning/value? in TV spots.? In lieu of repeating what everyone else has said, I want to focus on how this groundswell is an [...]

  4. Bob says:

    Adam, I’ll buy you a beer anytime whether you’re right or wrong! You make a point about people needing advertising, but that doesn’t mean they can save it. I was at a big digital marketing summit with CMOs a few weeks ago, and the head of a giant global restaurant chain said that all of us were killing the industry by using TiVo!

    Jessica, THANK YOU for a wonderful idea for Marketing with Meaning. Why create an ad about baby carriers and instead give them out to help moms with the pain of carrying around a baby while trying to get stuff done in life. We don’t want to be talked at, we want to be helped!

  5. Anthony says:

    Bob, I agree that agencies should stop working to create the perfect 30-second story to interrupt them. I do think there are a lot of different ways to reach target consumers. There was an article about a company called Brand Connections who provides integrated media and marketing services. I think what the company is doing is a great thing for marketers because they (marketers) can reach their target consumers in a category exclusive venues.

  6. Marc Connor says:

    Check out the most recent AdAge article on the debacle…I think the “meta” lesson is that brands can and should be treated like humans…we make mistakes, we have differing viewpoints, etc. The more vanilla we get the more we “get along”…but the more we mean nothing.
    We need treat our brand marketing as a personal, continual, meaningful conversation amongst humans…realizing that (and to steal a page from Mr. Covey) we should seek first to understand, then to be understood.

    Motrin could have used this opportunity to have a dialogue, build relationships and learn from it…the way it was handled, the only things they’ve learned is “don’t say offensive things” and “look out for those Tweeters”.

    But if we’re wise, the rest of us will learn from this experience the value of a conversation.

  7. Bob says:

    The thing that still gets to me – and still no one else is talking about – is the folly of trying to “feel moms’ pain” by creating a slick commercial. To borrow your “treat us like humans” mantra, Marc, when we want to help a friend out or build a connection with someone, do we create a video and invite them to watch? No. We show we care by doing things that help them. We listen, we ask, we discuss.

    Videos that talk at consumers are bound to be ignored at best and piss people off to the point of protest at worst.

  8. Marc Connor says:

    Fair enough on the content of the video…but for a brand a video can be a conversation starter (Dove?) – but there are occasions when each of us (human or brand) makes an error in judgement. Do we shut down and provide a cold apology or try to understand, connect, apologize and build a bridge?
    When we fail to get it right the first time, it’s what we do afterward that is the greatest test of our character…and that’s one to grow on! :)

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