When the Stuff Hit the Fan at Pampers

Filed under: In The News

The diaper in question. Credit: Esmeralda Scheleur


The diaper business has been a bit poopie-laden for Procter and Gamble these days. In light of an impending report on the safety of Pampers Dry Max diapers, due any day from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, we thought it was time for a recap on what happened. Here goes:

When the company launched Dry Max Pampers last spring, they unwittingly unleashed the wrath of mommy bloggers. Fueled by social media sites, moms evoked tales of diaper rash so severe they compared it to chemical burns. The anger resulted in a federal investigation, calls for a Pampers boycott and an anti-Pampers Facebook page that has swelled to some 11,000 members and sent P&G into a huddle.

The company emerged from its huddle with a solution: Divide and conquer.

In May, P&G invited two groups of mommy bloggers to its Cincinnati, Ohio headquarters and gave them a grand tour of its facilities, giving these moms gobs of information on what goes into the making of a diaper. For the record, ParentDish editors were also invited to the plant, but did not attend.

The company simultaneously embarked on an advertising blitz to get the word out that Dry Max is safe for baby bottoms. The new Internet ad on the company's website includes a tab dubbed "Safe for Babies" and video of Jodi Allen, vice president of Pampers in North America, giving her word that the new diapers are safe.

"Our first and foremost responsibility is to protect the well-being of your baby," Allen says on the video. "Please know that if we found any indication at all that our products were less than 100 percent safe, I would be the first one personally to take action."

The question that now sits there like a full Diaper Genie is: Who's right? The legions of angry moms with gruesome stories of oozing rashes, or the multinational corporation with its promises of a well-tested product?
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Social media gives voice to anyone with a bone to pick. But a mother's complaint, or even 11,000 mothers' complaints, is not hard evidence that a product is dangerous. On the other hand, increasing advertising and offering a factory tour doesn't prove that the product is safe, either.

P&G's efforts mollified some -- mainly the women who were invited to Cincinnati in May. None of the five mommy bloggers who attended the meetings wrote anything critical on their blogs about their experience, and most wrote long, favorable reviews of the summit. According to P&G, only one of the mommies who attended, Kate Marsh Lord, ever had a problem with the product. And she came to the summit armed with 13 pages of questions from parents in her universe.

"By the end of the day, my concerns were alleviated," Marsh Lord, who runs The Shopping Mama blog, tells ParentDish. Her daughter developed a rash while using Dry Max, she says. It eventually cleared and she continues to use the diapers. "If, at some point, I thought it wasn't safe, I wouldn't put my daughter in the diaper."

Like the other women at the meeting, P&G paid for Lord's airfare, meals and lodging, a move that ignited more criticism from groups like Pampers Bring Back the Old Cruisers/Swaddlers, who accused P&G of cherry-picking women who would serve as unofficial spokespeople for the brand.

For the anti-Dry Max set, P&G's new strategy has only proven their point -- that P&G doesn't care that babies' bottoms hurt and won't consider reissuing the old line of Swaddlers and Cruisers, which had 20 percent more paper pulp and had the chemical gel distributed differently than the new Dry Max.

"Our feeling on the mommy blogger summit is that they are paid endorsers of the product," Lisa Stone, an administrator of the Pampers Bring Back the Old Cruisers/Swaddlers Facebook page, told ParentDish over e-mail. "Pampers is a source of revenue for them on their mommy blogs, therefore their testimonials on the issue are meritless in our opinion."

Bryan McCleary, a P&G spokesperson told ParentDish that the company had tried in the past to reach out to critics, but had been unsuccessful. So, it enlisted moms who they already had a working relationship with, moms who ran product review blogs like What Mommies Need and The Not-So-Blog. The bloggers had received early samples of Dry Max to review them before P&G launched its new branding campaign in March. All but one of them, Kate Marsh Lord, had written favorably of the new diapers at the time and many offered Pampers promotions on their sites.

P&G says that 2 billion of the new diapers had been sold in old packaging since 2008, with no spike in complaints. It was only after the new boxes hit stores last spring that the complaints started rolling in. According to P&G, the new diapers use the same chemical gel and the same paper pulp as the old ones, the material is just arranged differently to create a 20 percent thinner product.

The tales some moms have told are indeed scary. Cathy Valentine of Michigan tells ParentDish that her 4-month-old daughter experienced a rash within hours of switching to Dry Max. By morning, she had an open sore that her pediatrician described as, "some sort of chemical burn or a chemical reaction of some sort," Valentine recounts. "He had not seen diaper rash like this before."

When Valentine contacted P&G's customer support hotline, she was initially offered a coupon toward a new box of Pampers. When she told the company that she did not want to continue using its diapers, they mailed her a check for a refund and sent her a form letter and coupons for IAMS cat food. According to Valentine, other parents received the same letter and the same two-for-one coupon offer.

"My complaint was about diapers injuring my 4 month old daughter and they're sending me cat food?" Valentine said. "Unbelievable."

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is investigating Dry Max and expects to reach a conclusion soon, which will likely provide some answers. In the meantime, parents can report complaints to the CPSC directly.

Angry parents have filed two class-action lawsuits against P&G, which spokesperson McCleary dismisses as the normal course of business for a multinational corporation.

"We're confident that the lawsuits have no merit," says McCleary. "Mainly it's an attempt by attorneys to see if they can extract money from the company, but it's not surprising when you have this kind of publicity."

P&G remains perplexed by the unending Dry Max-bashing, but attributes its rapid trajectory to social media, which has created a forum for moms to self diagnose ailments and vent rage. Despite the brouhaha, Pampers remains the best-selling premium diaper in the country, according to P&G.

For their part, the mommy bloggers who ventured to Cincinnati seem equally perplexed. Tiffany Snedaker, who runs the blog, Babies and Kids Review, attended the Cincinnati summit and is surprised by the ongoing outrage.

"A diaper is a diaper and you use what you like," she tells ParentDish. "If you're having problems with a diaper, you just change diapers."

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