Saturday, September 5, 2009

Toad-a Pop or Toad-al Scam? The PR Case Study Continues

Surely you've heard about the recent Diet Pepsi scandal involving a "frog or toad" found in Florida in a can of the popular soda. Found... or strategically placed?

What you might not remember are the massive hoaxes of the early 1990s involving Pepsi, when a couple in Washington state claimed to have found a syringe in their can of soda, sparking widespread claims of similar tampering elsewhere in the country. Unfounded accusations of tampering, that is. While a few cases were never fully resolved, Pepsi was never found to have done anything wrong, nor was there ever any proof of tampering at its manufacturing facilities. In fact, virtually all of the cases were found to be hoaxes.

Why this matters in terms of public relations is how Pepsi handled the whole syringe situation in 1993. While the liars looking to make some quick bucks off Pepsi were taking the trial to the media, Pepsi had to find a way to do the same thing without making the ultimate PR mistake of all — accusing the consumer. And thus the reason this became one of the greatest PR case studies ever.

Pepsi's statement then was a mirror image of its statement in light of the frog-in-the-can accusations. Paraphrased, they said that the speed at which cans move on the lines at Pepsi factories is too fast for tampering to have taken place. In order to help change the minds of the American public (while losing tons of money on lower products being sold and the marketing campaigns necessary to combat the hoaxes), Pepsi took to the media as well. Before long, the negative coverage about claims of syringes turned into broadcasts of Pepsi's video news releases and video taken by reporters invited into Pepsi plants around the country. The images of the fast-moving conveyor belts looked pretty convincing.

But perhaps the most genius part of Pepsi's PR plans involved the FDA. The company pressured the FDA to make a statement that the cases were apparently hoaxes, which they eventually did. This allowed official word to come out that it was some consumers who were at fault and not Pepsi, without Pepsi actually having to do the deed.

Fifty-three people in 20 states were arrested for filing false claims back then, and that's not even close to the number of people who actually made claims. Remember the finger in the Wendy's chili back in 2005? Think about it for a second. Can you remember how that was resolved? If you did, you're probably more media-savvy than the average consumer. Just to clarify, the woman making those claims was arrested too, and it all turned out to be a hoax. The problem organizations face in terms of PR is that the media heavily report the sensationalized stories of dangerous and exotic items being found in our favorite products, but the subsequent resolutions of these matters (almost always hoaxes) end up as briefs in the back of the newspaper or buried at the bottom of your favorite news station's links of the day on their Web site.

So am I saying that Fred DeNegri of Ormond Beach, Fla., is a liar? Well, in all likeliness, yes. Now, I'll admit it's possible that Kermit left Jim Henson's closet and trekked from L.A. to Texas before swimming across the Gulf of Mexico to Florida and making his way to Pepsi's Orlando plant. Yes, anything is possible. Oh, but wait, then Kermie freaking sneaked inside the plant, avoiding all of the workers, before finding a frog-sized ladder to climb up to the conveyor belt with the soda cans on it. Kermit had been taking notes from his buddy Frogger, you see, and he knew that he had to time his greatest scheme ever just right or he would end up splattered from Orlando to Tampa Bay. So he waited, and he waited, and then he jumped with the precisive accuracy that only an overweight, 35-year-old gamer in his mother's basement on an Atari 2600 guiding a pixelated amphibian could achieve. And, splash! Kermit had made it in the can, somehow losing his "internal organs normally found" in a frog. Orrrrr, DeNegri could be making it up. But who are we to pass judgment?

Oh, and DeNegri's original guess as to what was in the can? A mouse. Later in 1993 (after the syringe panic), a Mexican woman visiting the U.S. did indeed find a small rat in her Pepsi can, which federal investigators confirmed but did not initially release findings about for fear of creating another scare. However, Pepsi denied any responsibility in this matter. It is convenient, however, that with a little bit of Googling, DeNegri could have also learned this. I'm not saying he did it, and I'm not saying it's all a hoax. But it's almost always a hoax when something such as this has happened in the past.

In its most recent PR efforts, Pepsi's spokespersons have used the rhetoric surrounding all the previous hoaxes to their advantage, stating that "there never has been even a single instance" where these types of claims have been traced back to manufacturing issues. Other than that statement, Pepsi seems to be keeping mum on the incident, but it's likely there won't be enough idiots out there who think they can get away with fake claims to cause any sort of panic like the one that occurred in 1993. And that's the reason why the DeNegri's are either very unlucky Pepsi drinkers or very stupid people. Only time will tell, but I'd expect Pepsi to let the whole ordeal run its course, probably ending with an FDA statement if a hoax is confirmed. After all, they've been through this before.

Don't expect Pepsi's sales or reputation to suffer as much this time around as they did in 1993, either. After all, syringes brought up thoughts about AIDS and drugs, topics that were quite a bit higher in the media's priorities and in the daily repertoire of politicians at the time. We can handle swallowing frog parts as long as we don't get a disease, right? In addition, there have been a lot of these I-found-something-in-my-something-else stories and false stories via e-mail chain letters since 1993 as well. In a way, the American public is more desensitized to this than they were 16 years ago.

Feel free to discuss Pepsi's PR strategies and anything else you please in the comments section below. What theoretical applications do you see here, and would you do anything different then or now? What are your thoughts regarding the brand of Pepsi? Keep the comments and questions coming!

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to grab a Diet Coke.


Sources/Additional Reading:

FDA says residue is frog or toad
Wendy's hopes arrest will bring back customers
Hoaxes are found in the Pepsi case
The Pepsi Product Tampering Scandal of 1993
Needle in Pepsi


ibvirginian said...

I'd not heard of that. Frankly, if this fellow had heard of the mouse he should have gone after another company (assuming his pants are on fire).

Showing the cans flying down a conveyor belt was a great move against the syringe claims. You'd probably be more likely to find ground up animal than any whole critters.

Of course Pepsi could have also gone the route I usually take when I accidentally let something (e.g., bone, wrapper, tooth) get into a dish I'm making: say the person who found it is the winner and give them a lame prize (e.g., bone, wrapper, tooth).

JD said...

Hahaha. Nice.

Hit me up on the cell or something if you want to get some free food and such tonight and watch the VT game in Ashburn.