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Soap Opera : The Inside Story of Procter & Gamble

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Alecia Swasy

Wall Street Journal reporter Swasy reveals unsavory practices at Proctor & Gamble.  Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Tags: Books
Author: Alecia Swasy
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
1 review about Soap Opera : The Inside Story of Procter...

Why people hate big business

  • Dec 11, 2003
"Soap Opera" recounts what one hopes to be, though perhaps optimistically, a particularly bad period in the history of one of America's largest corporations, Procter & Gamble in the '80s and early '90s, when led by succeeding CEOs John Smale and Ed Artzt, the company ran afoul of environmental laws, consumer safety, common sense, and basic human decency in truly arrogant fashion. To read the story comprehensively laid out by Alecia Swasy is to gape in astonishment at the true measure of human depravity in search of the holy buck.

Does Swasy have it in for P&G? Yeah, but so would you if you were a journalist and your subject was breaking the law to trample on your rights while you tried to do your job. Things got so out of hand as P&G launched telephone record investigations and had ex-employees brought to Cincinnati police stations to explain why they were talking to a reporter, that the ensuing coverage sparked a national outcry. Pundits and cartoonists weighed in about the KGB tactics of people who make laundry detergent and toothpaste. When finally brought to heel by indignant shareholders, CEO Artzt shrugged and called it a mistake. "The only thing he regretted," Swasy writes, "was getting caught."

Swasy was clearly embittered by her experience, and when her narrative flies into polemical flourishes, as in the Epilogue ("[Critics] refuse to buy the Ivory-pure image so carefully cultivated by P&G's years of marketing. We should all do the same"), the book is poorer for it. She does a great job describing, through the voices of mostly anonymous insiders, the noxious work environment of P&G for its employees (and you don't have to be a "Proctoid" to relate to the Dilbert-in-the-Death-Star picture she paints), then editorializes on how P&G advertising nurtures enduring cultural "myths" about a woman's place being in the home. Frankly, this latter angle comes up lame. P&G advertising reflected the culture for years, it sold product, and it has been adjusted to fit contemporary mores, as Swasy notes (just not enough for her liking.) I don't know whether it's so awful the role of the female was once rather more rigidly defined than it is now, but dumping much of the blame on P&G's doorstep seems excessive. Marketing to lesbian soccer Moms in the 1940s would probably have not helped P&G achieve its present level of success.

Where Swasy's book is strongest is the account of Rely, the tampon whose ingredients could cause toxic shock, and were directly responsible for the deaths of several women in 1979-80. Despite the accumulation of evidence, P&G went forward with its marketing. As recounted in a chapter of the book "Guerrilla Marketing") that should be required reading in corporate ethics classes, CEO Smale even planned to roll out a deodorant version of Rely while his underlings worked to silence researchers (mostly successfully) with generous grant money. The chapter is particularly good when it recounts how one trial lawyer and a bereaved husband he represented forced P&G to pay ridiculously low damages and put needed heat on the effort to establish P&G's culpability. Never mind, though. Swasy reveals later on that P&G's lab boys were concurrently doping out how to add the same toxic chemical to diapers.

There are other good chapters on P&G's arrogant practices overseas, its inept handling of domestic retailers (not just the small fry but WalMart, too!), and its stranglehold on a Florida community living around a river P&G polluted. Sometimes, as with the Florida case, Swasy seems too eager to embrace anything the critics dish out, and her noting the death of the P&G snack food Pringles [as of the book's publication in 1994] appears in retrospect to have been premature.

But overall, "Soap Opera" is a solid addition to business journalism. Books like this one only make you look a little deeper than your coupon stash in thinking about what products you buy. And that's a good thing.

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