Friday, June 5, 2009

Sir Isaac Newton on Social Media and Pringles

It goes without saying that Newton's groundbreaking Three Laws of Motion were never intended to be applied to communications; however, it is interesting to note the ways in which these 320-year-old principles apply to marketing communications and how Social Media has upended traditional assumptions about the mechanics of communication. A situation out of England--Newton's home--involving P&G's Pringles brand offers a modest demonstration of how these mechanics have changed.

Although Sir Isaac Newton was focused upon physical interactions and not marketing, it might be observed that the discipline of marketing is dedicated to violating his famous Third Law of Motion: To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Marketing is the art and science of aiming the right message or crafting the right experience for the right audience via the right media in order to create an unequal result that exceeds the sum of the effort.

While striving to break his Third Law, marketing and PR executives had come to rely on the communications version of Newton's First Law: A body at rest stays at rest unless it is acted on by an external force. Companies attempted and often succeeded to control the release and spread of unflattering or undesirable information pertaining to their enterprises and brands. With the means of mass communication available to a select set of advertisers and PR professionals, messages that companies wanted broadcast were easily (if not cheaply) disseminated, while news and information they wished to control remained at rest and thus tended to stay quiet.

Social Media is rewriting Newton's Laws of Communications Motion. His Third Law might be restated: To every action there is an unpredictable and possibly disparate opposite
reaction. Who could have predicted that a music video by an American Studies grad student would become a phenomenon viewed tens of millions of times? How many people could have foreseen that a tongue-in-cheek video designed to endear a pain medicine to mothers would instead become a lightning rod for thousands of angry and critical blog posts?

The Social Media effect isn't only negative, of course--today brands strive to tap into our new hyper-word-of-mouth culture, and some find the right recipe. For example, McDonald's cheesy Filet-O-Fish commercial has been viewed over a million times on YouTube. You might think that pales in comparison to the 28.8 million people who tune into American Idol each week, but keep in mind the YouTube count is of people who actively sought out and watched the message rather than fast forwarding past the ad. Plus, the media cost for YouTube was $0 compared to the approximately $600,000 Fox gets for a 30-second spot on Idol. Action and reaction are no longer related in the world of Social Media.

If Social Media has made Newton's Third Law of Communications Motion a bit unpredictable, it's more or less destroyed Sir Isaac's First Law as it applies to PR. Nowadays, no corporate decision or news can be counted upon to stay at rest, no matter how much the organization may want it contained.

In the age of Social Media, there is no assurance that small decisions and actions will remain small. When Social Media professionals speak of "transparency," it means (among other things) that business operations are subject to scrutiny, corporate choices may be the topic of wide-spread debate, and that people outside the organization have the ability and right to determine what is newsworthy and will be broadcast through the Twitterverse and blogosphere.

P&G brand Pringles provides a case study of how a rather simple business decision can find surprising life in Social Media. Back in July 2008, I wrote a blog post, "Pringles: Social Media and PR," about a seemingly trivial legal claim by Procter & Gamble UK that was getting attention within social networks. The company, seeking to reduce a tax levied against Pringles, went to court and argued that their product is not a potato chip or a potato product. The judge agreed, announcing that Pringles were not "made from the potato."

The reaction was not nearly on par with the famed Social Media PR embarrassments suffered by Dominos or Burger King, but it's still interesting to consider how this small story took a life of its own. Back in July, writing just a day after the news broke, I referenced hundreds of Pringles-related tweets and blog posts, none of them complimentary. This mundane tax issue had become the topic of debate and consideration for thousands of people who--in the words of one Twitterer--wondered, "If Pringles are less than 50% potato, what's the other 51%+ made of?" While many speculated on the non-potato ingredients of the non-potato chip, other bloggers took a more strategic and critical look at the business decision. Syndicated columnist Jim Hightower wrote, "Corporations commonly try to dodge their tax responsibilities, but it's unusual for one to dis its own product in order to avoid paying."

Obviously, the great Pringles Tax Scandal of 2008 didn't bring P&G to its knees, but it did present a PR challenge that required attention, consideration, and some investment of time and expense to assess the risks, respond to inquiries, and proactively manage the brand's message. Furthermore, the brand did not merge completely unscathed; the headline on tells the story: "Branding Work Undone as Details of U.K. Tax Case Spread Across the Web."

Having won the case, it seemed the negative buzz would quickly quiet, and it did--until this week when Britain’s Supreme Court of Judicature legally and officially announced that Pringles are, in fact, potato chips. The New York Times notes, "The decision is bad news for Procter & Gamble U.K., which now owes $160 million in taxes."

The news is also bad because, once again, the information has not stayed at rest and is newly ricocheting through Social Media. On Twitter there have again been dozens of tweets reaching thousands of people. Google's blog search once more reflects over a hundred blog posts from this past week, all calling attention to the “potatoness” (a term used in the Supreme Court ruling) of Pringles. And as the blog did with last year's Pringles' news, The Consumerist has again put a spotlight on P&G's legal and consumer issues in an article that has been read over 6,000 times in three days.

One understands why P&G thought this was a legal argument worth mounting. With $160 million of tax dollars in play and a legitimate claim that Pringles are "crisps" and not potato chips--the operative distinction in the tax case--it must have seemed a simple legal and economic decision to go to court. But now that we can observe not just P&G's loss of their case but also the social and brand costs associated with their effort, it is easy to see how business decisions must be reached with a different set of criteria than in the past.

No decision can be made without some consideration for how it might play in Social Media; every decision is a brand decision, to one extent or another; and everyone in the organization is responsible for brand stewardship. Whether it's a cable installer who falls asleep in a consumer's house, a poorly maintained bathroom, an overzealous PR flack offering to pay consumers for positive reviews, or management's handling of a round of layoffs, anyone or anything can become fodder for the Social Media gristmill.

If any action can result in an unequal and frequently unexpected reaction in Social Media, and if information doesn't stay at rest and cannot be contained, what does this mean to marketing and communication professionals? First of all, we should learn from the experiences of P&G, Motrin, Comcast and others. Like Sir Isaac Newton, who famously came to a scientific revelation about gravity after observing an apple falling to the ground, we can observe the gravitational pull of Social Media and develop plans and procedures that prevent our brands from getting sucked into the same vortex of criticism and negativity.

How? We'll explore this in the next post when we apply Newton's Second Law of Motion to the world of Social Media.


FloatingBones said...

Sir Isaac's laws end up having fundamental limitations in physical systems. A "simplified" case of the three body problem with 2 large masses and one much smaller mass with tend to go chaotic in short order. Local weather can be predicted out to 10-15 days, but we'll probably never be able to predict it out to 30 days -- no matter how sophisticated the instrumentation and models become. I recently did an Ignite presentation where I talked about this: video at and slide notes at . It's a very fast intro to Chaos Thoeory. Slide notes provide some good references to anyone who wishes to pursue this further.

What does this have to do with social networking? I'm convinced the forces in social networking are nonlinear -- a prerequisite for chaotic systems. The NY times had a great article about swarming behavior in many animals: . They talk about how one animal can have "influence" in that system. It's a very good read.

All of these are about loosely-coupled structures: things that cannot be forced to behave in a particular way. Loosely-coupled structures are actually the antithesis of what Sir Isaac was seeking. He wanted to find systems that were entirely deterministic and predictable. Things from the solar system to the climate to the human body to social networking systems have definite "limits of predictability". Over time, the behavior of all of these systems becomes unpredictable. Newton probably got the mother of all headaches when he figured that out.

Whole-systems modeling and behavior is where it's at.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks for the very thoughtful and informative comments, FloatingBones!