Zicam’s P.R. Crisis and the Mixed Message

In a P.R. crisis, do not give out mixed messages.

In yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, I was struck by a full-page ad for Zicam, a cold remedy I had never heard of. The headline and text were set in bold white sans serif type reversed against a bright red background.

I immediately dismissed the ad without reading it. It was typical poor design and copy out of the pharmaceutical industry that often doesn’t know good advertising from bad.

Whereupon I came across an AP story by Matthew Perrone titled, “FDA says Zicam nasal spray can cause loss of smell.”

I noted this and then found the same full-page ad in The New York Times. Clearly the company was going through a P.R. crisis—something always worth studying and learning from. You never know when the egg will hit the fan and you will wind up on the wrong side of a lawsuit.

When I got upstairs to my office, I went online to www.zicam.com and was immediately faced with a video starring Bill Hamilton, a middle-aged man wearing a shirt with open collar, who is CEO of the company Zicam.

Click on the “PLAY” icon, and Hamilton delivers a calming, personal three-minute message from the heart that explains what has happened, guarantees Zicam’s promise of absolute compliance and openness in dealing with the FDA and reassures the viewer that everything is going to be okay once all the facts are out. His lede:


My name is Bill Hamilton. I am the president of Matrixx Initiatives, makers of Zicam Cold Remedy products.

As you may have heard, the FDA has asked you to stop using our Zicam Cold Remedy Gel Swabs and Zicam Cold Remedy Nasal Gel.

The FDA did this since some consumers reported that they lost their sense of smell after using these two products.

Your safety has always been-and will continue to be-our number one priority at Zicam.

Our company—and I personally—would never market a product that we didn’t believe was safe.

That said, we want to work with the FDA, and so we have voluntarily withdrawn these two products from retailers’ shelves.

Note how Hamilton does not hide behind the faceless, CYA “we, us and our.” Instead, Hamilton—who delivers the entire three-minute message in a single smooth take—comes off as a straight arrow, competent, caring guy who is the face of the company and in charge. (“Our company—and I personally—would never market a product …”)

What’s more, the talk sounds like Hamilton wrote it. For example:

We believe the cumulative scientific and medical evidence shows that our products are safe and efficacious. And there is not credible evidence that Zicam Cold Remedy Nasal Gel or Zicam Cold Remedy Gel Swabs causes you to lose your sense of smell.

“Efficacious?” I had to look up the word (“marked by qualities giving the power to produce an intended effect”). No scriptwriter would use that word talking to consumers; I was made to believe that this was his word and that all of these were his words.

The people that wrote and produced this video are masters of correct communications. This is textbook correct P.R.

The Print Effort: Just the Opposite
At the end of this blog is an illustration of the full-page broadsheet newspaper ad that ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times and presumably other publications nationwide. Here are the headline and text:




As our millions of loyal users know, Zicam Cold Remedy products are specially formulated to shorten your colds so you don’t just feel better—you ARE better, sooner. We’re proud to have helped so many millions of you. In fact, over a billion doses of Zicam have been sold over the past decade.

We firmly believe in the safety and effectiveness of our products. Based on the FDA’s recommendations, we have voluntarily taken two nasal products off the shelves until we can resolve this issue. However, 17 products in our Zicam family are still available at every major retailer across the country.

This includes a full line of oral cold remedy products—in many forms and flavors—that deliver our amazing cold relief benefit.

You can learn more at zicam.com. You’ll also find a coupon there so you can try one of our oral products. So whenever you feel a cold coming on, rest assured you can still have Zicam on hand.

©2009 Zicam, LLC


What’s wrong with this design and copy? Everything!

1. Red is a hot color. Red implies danger. It is jarring. It screams, “READ THIS! SOMETHING IS WRONG!”

2. The copy and design breaks the rules of advertising as articulated by the legendary David Ogilvy:

  • “Set your headline, and indeed your whole advertisement, in upper and lower case. CAPITAL LETTERS LIKE THESE are much harder to read, probably because we learn to read in lowercase. People read all their books, newspapers and magazines in lowercase.
  • “Keep your opening paragraph down to a maximum of 11 words. A long first paragraph frightens readers away.”
  • “Serif type is easier to read than sans serif type.”
  • “Never set your copy in reverse (white type on a black background) and never set it over gray or colored tint. (The old school of art directors believed that these devices forced people to read the copy; we now know that they make reading physically challenging.”)

Ultimately, this is cheerleading pitch for Zicam with a passing mention of two products being pulled off the shelves with no reason why (possible loss of sense of smell). As a result the addled Zicam user is left to fear the worst: cancer, heart problems, blindness, diminished hearing, loss of hair.

Worse, the ad fails to state precisely which two products have been recalled, tarring the entire Zicam line with the same brush of mediocrity and danger.

When you finish reading the ad, the implication is: “You bought ’em, you own ’em and baby, you’re screwed.” By contrast in Bill Hamilton’s video, it is made very clear that a full refund is guaranteed or, if you prefer, the unused nasal remedies can be exchanged for other Zicam products.

Finally, what should have been a personal letter to readers from Bill Hamilton that reflects the care and love he has for Zicam users and for his company, this atrocity is unsigned, unemotional and fear mongering.

This was a case of the big P.R. guns being trained on the video and YouTube message and the rest of the effort turned over to smartypants amateurs.

Last time I looked, the YouTube message from Bill Hamilton had 305 views, while the Inquirer and the Times weekday editions have a circulation of 288,000 and 1.039 million respectively.

Contrary to popular myth, print still matters.

And the well being of your customers is more important than your product line.

According to the June 24, 2009 edition of The Wall Street Journal:

In 2006 Matrixx settled with over 300 consumers who sued, claiming Zicam nasal gel destroyed their sense of smell. In addition, on June 16th, the day of the FDA’s warning, Matrixx stock plunged 70%, from $19.74 to $5.78.