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Where's The Retraction
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

P&G Sets The Record Straight On Dry Max Diapers Only The Social Web Doesn't Care

It's official: the allegation that P&G's new diapers cause rashes, led and fueled in large part by consumers' use of social media, has been refuted. Three cheers for the good news! Concerned parents and supportive activists can collectively breathe a sigh of relief. Solid, accurate information has saved the day for everyone involved.

Only not so much.

In order to get to the bottom of this issue (yuck yuck), here's a quickie background (more yuck yuck): one of the few real product innovations coming out of P&G these days is Pampers Dry Max diapers, which promise to do everything from sop up more gunk using less material while fitting better, to take less than a millennium to decompose once they're discarded. The company did everything it could to botch the product rollout, starting with putting the new diapers in boxes for the old ones, so early consumers were surprised by the change. Reports connecting the new diapers to rashes came next on parenting web sites, followed by Facebook pages calling for a consumer boycott and the activism of class-action lawyers looking to make a buck.

P&G steadfastly denied any connection, claiming that it had rigorously tested the product before launch and that the incidents were so rare as to qualify as outlier exceptions. It offered to replace diapers with new ones. This only further enraged the aggrieved, who returned to social media platforms to vent and reaffirm their anger. The mainstream media reported these developments as an emerging PR nightmare for the brand. New media agencies inserted the evolving case history into their new business pitches as if to declare "witness the power of the Internet!"

Now the government's Consumer Product Safety Commission ("CPSC") has completed its investigation and confirmed P&G's conclusion. It should be the end of the issue (OK, enough with the puns), only it isn't.

First, it's not covered in the mainstream press like the start of the crisis. The Wall Street Journal story was only a few paragraphs buried at the bottom of a page in its business section. The New York Daily News focused on the activism and not the science, headlining its story "Mom Campaign Over?" The news cycle has always favored allegations over conclusions. Crimes over sentences. Problems over solutions. So the vast majority of people who were only marginally aware of the issue are only marginally aware that it’s not an issue anymore.

Second, since nobody trusts anybody anymore -- and especially doesn't trust any traditional institutions of authority -- the resolution doesn't come across as anywhere near resolved. Our access to the Internet has taught us to question motives and doubt conclusions, almost as if the more we know the less we believe. Did anybody review the way the CPSC reviews cases? Do any of the members of the Commission hold stock in P&G, and are any of them mothers with small infants at home? A Pampers bigwig posts her relief and seemingly heartfelt concern for babies and the first thing I think is well sure, she's going to say that, isn't she?

It's as if we've disqualified the very people and mechanisms that should be qualified to tell us what's what.

Third, this means that the aggrieved crowd with an axe to grind with P&G has no need or incentive to do anything other than keep complaining. In fact, I wonder whether their beef isn’t similar to the grievances we all have with life in general: stuff doesn't work for no good reason, and bad things happen without anybody or anything to blame. Imagine if your baby got a rash with no obvious explanation (which happens not infrequently, according to the CPSC and P&G). The new diapers are a variable and barring any better cause, BAM! No amount of scientific testing changes the fact that your kid still has a red butt; therefore, the bastards who caused it must be covering theirs.

The Internet connects things that have no objectively real connection, and tees-up an accusation or theory for absolutely everything, from terribly reasonable to awfully insane. Just reading the posts on this parent site gives you a sample of how the aggrieved are inconsolable. They can tell one another how right they are. The echo chamber remains undisturbed by the cry of reason.

I don't think the folks running or posting on the various Death to Pampers Dry Max diapers sites are going to rescind their calls for holy war. Individually, they'll hold onto their fears and find proof for their worst suspicions. Good luck trying to sell other things to them, or getting them off of blaming your product for rainy days, or whatever.

Funny how the social web only works one way.

Conversation my butt.

Added: 6th September 2010

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