Pepsi & Twitter as early-warning device

by Mathew on December 8, 2008 · 12 comments

Over the past year, Twitter has become a wildly-popular social network, allowing people to stay in touch not just with their friends but also with celebrities like MC Hammer and Shaquille O’Neal, who use the service to talk directly to their fans. For many companies, meanwhile, Twitter has effectively become a real-time market-survey tool. Comcast and Zappos, for example, have used it to track reactions to their products and have been able to respond to their customers much faster than they could in the past. Some companies, however, have found themselves at the center of a Twitter-storm — including Johnson & Johnson, which faced criticism from mothers both on the service and in the blogosphere at large, after an advertising campaign for the painkiller Motrin made what were seen (by some) as disparaging comments about moms who carry their kids in slings.

The latest company to feel the slings (pun intended) and arrows of a Twitter-storm is Pepsi, which was apparently trying to make light of the fact that Pepsi Max has a single calorie with a campaign that showed a cartoon-like representation of the calorie committing suicide by drinking poison, shooting itself through the head and hanging itself. While according to the company, it only officially ran in a single magazine ad in Germany, it quickly made its way around the world. Not surprisingly, it struck some observers as being in very bad taste, particularly since the primary target market for soft drinks — young people — has a high suicide rate.

Among those who criticized the company’s campaign was Christine Lu, a blogger and video podcaster whose sister committed suicide and who said that Pepsi — or more specifically, the ad agency BBDO — should be ashamed of itself for making light of such a terrible phenomenon. Her Twitter posts were subsequently picked up by a number of advertising and consumer-related blogs, and reports about the campaign started appearing on news sites as well. Soon, a comment appeared on Twitter from Pepsi spokesman Huw Gilbert, who apologized and said that the campaign was totally inappropriate, and that it would not happen again.

Both Johnson & Johnson and Pepsi quickly removed the controversy-inducing ads, even though there was a considerable amount of debate (in the case of Motrin, at least) about whether they were actually offensive at all, or whether critics were simply being hypersensitive. Some have argued that doing what Motrin and Pepsi did was worth it, even if they got a lot of criticism, because at least people are talking about their products (as the old saying goes, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity”). A couple of years ago, Chevrolet allowed people to use video clips to make their own commercials about the Chevy Tahoe, and while a number of them chose to make critical commercials about how bad the vehicles were, the company reportedly still saw the campaign as a positive thing.

One thing is clear, however: Regardless of how valid the criticisms of either Motrin or Pepsi were, using Twitter gave both of the companies behind the products the tools to respond to those concerns quickly and directly — not days or weeks later with a press release or an official statement, but minutes or perhaps hours later, with a personal comment from someone directly associated with the campaign. In that sense, as I pointed out at a Canada News Wire event this morning, Twitter can act as a kind of early-warning system, alerting companies to sparks of customer dissatisfaction that could (if ignored) turn into all-out forest fires. That’s not to say every company should remove an ad or change a product just because someone complains on Twitter; but it certainly makes it easier to get a head start on such a decision if one needs to be made.

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