IndustrySEM Brand Reputation Management

SEM Brand Reputation Management

How search advertising can save the day...and your life.

The Aqua Dots disaster continues. Adding children’s toys to a growing list of inferior products coming in from China, and fueled by the demand for cheap goods, the American consumer was once again taken by surprise.

The story broke in early November as parents began to report children swallowing the popular Aqua Dots toy. The “wax beads,” which look a lot like candy, were found to produce an effect similar to a date rape drug when consumed. Said beads were also found to induce coma or seizures.

Why would Toys “R” Us distribute ads for that toy that was killing kids from China weeks after the product was declared dangerous and recalled? The cold harsh reality for those who have ever purchased traditional media is: it happens. How fast can you pull your ads?

As if the problem created by this product wasn’t bad enough, ads in weekend newspapers and Black Friday circulars started appearing from major retailers like Toys “R” Us and Target. According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, Toronto-based Spin Master distributed about 4.2 million Aqua Dots.

The Safety Commission’s release was dated November 7. Ads for Aqua Dots still appeared weeks later, and consumers were outraged. It’s one thing for Aqua Dots to appear in the Wal-Mart Christmas catalog; it’s something else entirely for weekly circulars to be plugging the toys.


First, it doesn’t take much to outrage consumers these days. Second, any type of news like this will serve as link bait (define) for paid links. The number one Google result for Toys “R” Us China toys is a Huffington Post piece calling out the ad distribution problem.

Of course, the piece also has Google contextual ads running alongside the editorial.

Step 1: Admit There’s a Problem

Expect a press release stating something to the effect of, “we realize the product was recalled several weeks ago, and we made every effort to remove any promotional effort associated with the sale of said goods.”

Well, I looked pretty hard for something like that on the Toys “R” Us Web site, but I couldn’t find it. After clicking through a search for the brand name, I waded through holiday promotions and it only took a few minutes to find the product recall page.

Product recall page?

Aqua Dots were listed alongside at least a dozen other products that were either recalled or deemed dangerous. A visit to the Toys “R” Us press page lists a series of holiday shopping releases but no mention of Aqua Dots, the recall, or the ads.

Step 2: Ongoing Damage Control

“Damage control” may not be the right phrase, but ignoring the problem isn’t going to make it go away. In the modern age of communication, bloggers and news sites are rewarded with contextual search ad revenue. The more interesting (read: catering to the lowest common denominator) the story is, the more the story is spun.

Facts are no longer important. Logic and reason has lost (if it ever had it) critical mass.

So what’s a retailer to do? How much does it cost to explain how difficult it is to remove ads that are already in flight? Not much.

Issue a press release. Make an entry on your site. Explain to potential customers that the ads were not run intentionally. Compile keywords based on search activity for the story. Position your content alongside entries complaining that your insensitive brand doesn’t care about killing kids.

Tell the truth in a rational, coherent way without becoming defensive. Of course, this is easier said than done while someone is filleting your brand.

Soap Box Time

Hurt me once, shame on you. Hurt me twice, shame on me. Hurt me over and over while I keep asking for more, and the relationship is its own brand of crazy.

The Aqua Dots debacle is definitely one of those situations in which one has to ask, “Just exactly what did you think was going to happen?” There are so many cheap products out there, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of where they come from.

We bought toys that look like candy from a place that only a few months ago was killing our pets with toxic fillers. That wasn’t enough to get us off the cheap products train, and it seems killing our kids won’t do the job either.

Instead of accepting responsibility for our own decisions to buy cheap products in massive quantities, we try and blame retailers. How sad. Common sense may eventually prevail, but in the mean time, keep fighting the good fight.


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