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November 17, 2008

The groundswell gives Motrin a headache

by Josh Bernoff

By now you may already have heard about the Motrin Moms saga. In a nutshell:

  • Motrin put the ad you see above on its Web site. First mistake -- the ad is wrong. Since my wife is affiliated with La Leche League, an organization that supports breastfeeding, I can tell you that if wearing your baby hurts your back or neck, you need positioning help, not Motrin. And moms who care about parenting are exactly the wrong people to offend in your ad -- they talk!
  • Pissed off moms start a firestorm on Twitter (#motrinmoms is trending), followed by hundreds of blog posts. Notable ones include David Armano at Logic & Emotion, with a very complete early analysis, and Sarah Evans on Mashable, with advice on what to do next. Jeremiah runs down the numbers. And this satirical view is amusing.
  • A Facebook group attracts hundreds (in one day) requesting a Motrin boycott.
  • Johnson & Johnson takes Motrin.com down. Unfortunately, this stuff lives on the Internet forever.
  • Inevitably, the controversy pokes its way into the traditional media, in this case Forbes. And the parenting blog of the New York Times.

It's Monday morning, but even though this broke on Saturday, it's already well-trod ground. J&J has months of PR work to (un)do and hours to do it in.

In the Introduction to Groundswell we said that in situations like these, "traditional PR tools were as useless as a broadsword against a rain of poison darts." And it's true. J&J is basically powerless against this, because Motrin has no presence in the social world. I find it notable that the "Motrin blog" near the top of Google's blogsearch for Motrin is a flog for an online generic ibuprofen sales site. (I'll spare you the link.) I'm sure they're loving the traffic right now.


  1. You need a community about your brand -- private or public -- so you can test how these things will play. This is essential market research.
  2. You need a Twitter account and/or a blog to be able to respond quickly when these things happen. They do happen. They could and will happen to you. (They have certainly happened to me, and it's a good thing I had a place to respond.) Otherwise you have no voice.
  3. Viral has two sides. Never forget that.
  4. Immunize your marketing and brand staff by educating them. Show them what happened here, and ask them, "Does this scare you? Do you see the power of this stuff?" Then invest $20 and buy them a copy of Groundswell or Secrets of Social Media Marketing to help them get a clue, and use this incident to get them started. (If they don't like to read, I'll even read it to them.)

Update: Motrin has posted an apology. Two days later. See below. (Seth Godin finds it lacking -- and I agree.)



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Bruce Kasrel

Love the satire posts you linked to. Seems like the obvious follow up for Motrin is to poke fun at themselves. "Are you a tired PR person typing responses to a Twiter firestorm, you need Motrin."

Adam Kmiec

J&J is a big company. A safe company. There is no doubt in my mind that this ad was tested with ASI-Ipsos or the like. I'm sure the ad tested well or they wouldn't have run it. Ads can't please everyone. My wife, my mom, and my mother in law were all fine with the ad. They actually found it funny.

Your point #1 is the big one. They never had a presence before, so now their only presence is this one.

Are we not blowing this out of proportion? Let me re-phrase is not the community blowing this out of proportion? Motrin didn't kill someone. They didn't abduct babies. The created an ad. It's irresponsible reactions like this that lead to companies pulling back on engaging consumers online. Rather than taking Jessica Gottlieb's approach of asking moms to NEVER buy Motrin again, wouldn't we be better off providing Motrin constructive feedback? After all they have a twitter profile setup and are asking for it.


@Adam Kmiec

I don't think it is blowing things out of proportion but I think it is typical of drug companies thinking. If someone is in pain/sick, the best thing to do is take drugs, lots of drugs rather than trying to solve the source of the pain.

Parenting in the Workplace Institute

I think the big problem with the ad, and a primary reason that it attracted so many negative (and passionate) reactions, is that it had the potential to negatively affect many, many new parents and their babies.

As many of the parents who responded to this ad know, babywearing is an incredible tool for keeping babies happy--often when nothing else works--for enabling easy breastfeeding, for enhancing bonding, etc. Considering that Shaken Baby Syndrome generally happens when parents can't effectively cope with prolonged crying by their babies, babywearing (and the proven drastic reduction in crying that it produces) has tremendous potential for helping parents and babies.

What bothered many people about Motrin's ad was that it came across as dismissing what it described as the "supposed" benefits for babies, and, more importantly, it presented pain as the norm rather than the exception or an indicator of a fixable problem. These things together could easily have scared off parents who might otherwise have considered babywearing.

Babywearing is only recently gaining visibility and acceptance in our culture and is still unknown to many people. Motrin's ad was essentially an uninformed step backwards in public awareness of the major benefits of this practice for babies and parents. I think that's why people responded so strongly to it.

Adam Kmiec

@annie to be clear are you saying that asking people to never purchase Motrin again AND asking/speculating people get fired is not over reacting?

@carla great comment. I urge everyone and anyone to look through the journals and ask pediatricians...you won't find one authentic and backed clinical report that indicates babywearing is better or worse for your baby. Granted I did it, because I liked it and yes my back hurt after 6 hours at the state fair http://www.thekmiecs.com/cora/2008-minnesota-state-fair/

Parenting in the Workplace Institute


For the data, you might want to check out:
which documents the greatly reduced crying in babies who are carried more (in arms or in carriers--well-designed carriers tend to make the carrying easier on parents).

You might also want to look through this extensively-researched academic journal piece that discusses baby carrying and the extensive benefits of close physical contact for babies, among other baby development topics:

In your own situation, even pushing a stroller for 6 hours would have been tough on your back. I'm just saying that babywearing is often far more efficient (and pain-free, in general) for parents and effective at keeping babies happy and feeling secure than most other baby transportation methods.

Josh Bernoff

I've seen a lot of "are we overreacting" comments in Twitter and in the Groundswell.

Who's this "we" anyway?

A minority of people find this very offensive. My only point is -- did you realize that, Motrin, before you started? And did that minority, which is very vocal, matter to you?

Some people in the groundswell always overreact. But if what they are reacting to gets sympathy from a larger group, you are in big trouble.

Don't tell the groundswell what to do - - and in any case, you're better off if you find a way to engage with them, especially if you are going to antagonize a few of them.

Katrina Hollmann

I think one of the most interesting and important things this shows is that, overreaction or not, those that choose to be vocal and push to be heard will make something an issue if it strikes a nerve.

There will be many who scoff and brush this off as unimportant and unworthy of such outrage, but I'm sure that the makers of Motrin are thankful that it's not a more serious issue given the amount of attention it has garnered.

James Clark

The lesson as you discussed is to be involved and engage in the conversation - or at least monitoring and tracking it.

What the mind doesn't know, it creates, and it will create worse case scenarios if there is a void of information.

So having a voice and being engaged in the conversation is one's best preventative measure to a crises.

Motrin obviously knows moms are a key community, and apparently they did not put forth a community building effort with this group in regards to this effort.

There's no looking back now, Motrin must get on its game and genuinely engage in with its communities.

Carissa (GoodNCrazy)

Am looking at the rest of your links. Didn't see the apology from Motrin before. But what else were they supposed to do! Kills me that the ad went out in PRESS as well! I'm not really all that offended by the ad, WAY more interested in the fall out!

@carissarogers on twitter

North Texas Natural Family

Motrin’s mis-step makes a perfect reminder:

* It’s still International Babywearing Week (Nov. 12-18).
* There are still needy mamas out there who don’t have slings to help them hold their babies close.

If you felt Motrin’s misdirected ad was worthy taking the time to complain about, don’t forget to take a positive step, as well: donate a sling to a needy family.


Nick Stamoulis

With the power of the internet now social marketing can really come back to bite even the larger companies.

Marc Monseau

In case you didn't see it, Kathy also posted her thoughts on this to the company blog, JNJBTW -- http://jnjbtw.com/?p=362

and added some more perspective to Motrin.com yesterday:


J.R. Atkins

As I write a Sales & Marketing Plan for client I am depending on the information in Groundswell to shape the plan.

Also, I'm looking to sponsor a discussion group at my client site with people in the Dallas FT Worth area.

Please let me know if you have interest.

J.R. Atkins

As I write a Sales & Marketing Plan for client I am depending on the information in Groundswell to shape the plan.

Also, I'm looking to sponsor a discussion group at my client site with people in the Dallas FT Worth area.

Please let me know if you have interest.

Bart Vickers

None of J&J's errors here are about the spot itself. The spot pokes gentle fun at moms who take themselves too seriously and especially at a celebrity mom population that indeed seems to view babies as a fashion statement. So what were J&J's errors? There are a few big ones. First: humor. Humor is subjective and given how small social media has made the planet, marketers will stir up a group of people offended by the attempt at comedy. So J&J should have anticipated this, had a position to address it, ahead of time. Secondly, J&J didn't engage the community. Cardinal sin of social media. Finally, they reacted without looking at data. Pulling the spot, when their critics represent less than .2% of the internet population, can in no way be described as a well-supported decision. The power of the Groundswell in this case is for a hyper-vocal few to use free social tools to push around a much bigger corporate entity.

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