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DE-EMPOWERING THE SHRILL: A CASE HISTORY

Once, not that long ago, a company that received outraged complaints from either special interest groups, or a few vocal consumers, was quick to cave.

Once, not that long ago, a company that received outraged complaints from either special interest groups, or a few vocal consumers, was quick to cave.

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The theory was based on the parallel arguments that a) its better to avoid controversy even if it means surrendering to an aggressive minority, and b) for every one complaint letter, there are at least ten consumers out there who feel the same way, but are too lazy to put pen to paper.

That conventional corporate behavior hasn’t been the case, though, in a recent example regarding Proctor & Gamble.  P&G used to be the most conservative, reluctant-to-offend, and quick-to-fold of the consumer package goods companies — so I was fascinated to read their response to two swirls of controversy. 

The first relates to the actions of a group called Enough is Enough. They are demanding that the company withdraw its advertising from programming on MTV and BET that they argue is profane, stereotypical, and degrading to women.  The usual grab-bag of aggrieved objections. 

The second issue grows out of the infamous gay kiss on “As The World Turns”, which comes from P&G productions.  The pucker-vigilant American Family Association has asked its members to call P&G and tell them how offended they are by this endorsement of the gay lifestyle. 

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Rather than cave, P&G has turned this into a marketing event, opening it up to a vote by setting up a toll-free number where all of us can weigh on these issues.  An American Idol of kvetching and defending. 

Of course, as you’d expect, this has taken on a life of its own online.  Bloggers like Perez Hilton are urging their readers to call and take a stand, as is the American Family Association itself.  Interestingly, though P&G doesn’t feature the toll-free number of either their corporate website, or the website for “As The World Turns.”   Seems like they want to limit their exposure to the controversy at the same time they are spinning it. 

P&G’s response is a brilliant step.  By opening up the controversy and instantly democratizing it, the company puts itself on the side of the angels, and of history.  In a flat, Internet-centric world where consumers are in charge, where user-generated content is king, the days of making policy decisions based on a few loudmouths are behind us. 

What P&G is implicitly saying is that when it comes to subjective issues like these, it’s far better for the community to decide than for the company to impose its own perspective.  Meanwhile, it gets P&G off the hook for the ultimate decision. 

Most important, the company is saying that it trusts the people it sells to.  Which is a sure formula for having the people it sells to, trust them.

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About the author

Adam is a brand strategist--he runs Hanft Projects, a NYC-based firm--and is a frequently-published marketing authority and cultural critic. He sits on the Board of Scotts Miracle-Gro, and has consulted for companies that include Microsoft, McKinsey, Fidelity and Match.com, as well as many early and mid-stage digital companies

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