The latest company to feel the wrath of the consumers they thought they were wooing, is Bittylab, a fledgling infant product hope-to-be that, until this weekend, was pretty darn proud of its new baby bottle. Called BARE, it imitates the relationship between a baby and a mother's breast, or so its literature says.
The BARE Twitter campaign went a bit further and was directed toward dads, who might, the tweets hinted, have other uses for those breasts.
"Feeling like you're competing with your newborn for mommy's attention? Meet BARE™ air-free #babybottles" one said.
"New baby? Reclaim your wife. Meet BARE™ air-free," suggested another.
In fewer than 280 characters, in other words, Bittylab pressed some of the hottest buttons in parenting. First, it stepped in the middle of the breast vs. bottle debate, by suggesting that any bottle -- even one filled with expressed breast milk -- could take the place of the real thing.
Second, it fueled the fight over whether any man who does feel "replaced" by his nursing child is jerk, or simply an average guy.
And, finally, it waded into the simmering frustration over tone-deaf marketing that treats fathers not as equals but as afterthoughts in questions of parenting.
Breast vs. bottle is a long-standing war, rekindled every time someone gets kicked out of a restaurant or courtroom for nursing, or writes a magazine piece suggesting that bottles don't actually doom children for life.
The marketing debate flares regularly, too, as it did this past spring when protest led Huggies to change a campaign depicting fathers as clueless.
The Dad's needs vs. baby's argument, in contrast, happens less often. But when it does pop to the surface, it is loud.
The most recent screaming occurred a few weeks ago, when James Braly wrote an essay on Motherlode called "Breastfeeding and Sex: Is Latching On a Turn-Off?"
It seemed written to generate controversy, including statements like " to everyone chanting "My Body! My Choice!" I say, "Your Body! Our Nookie!" Or, "a mother who hovers over her little prince or princess too long leaves the former king of the castle feeling increasingly powerless, and likelier to seek a queen on the side."
True, Braly was discussing extended breastfeeding -- describing his first grader stretching out to nurse and concluding "as their mother's husband, however, I was dry-heaving -- and bile is not an aphrodisiac." But while many commenters took his side, saying six years is too long, a large percentage also accused him of being a boor. "Dad's jealousy of his son is troubling," was one typical comment. "He sounds like a two-year-old who can't share."
"I will never understand why an ADULT male has a stake in breasts unless he was denied them as a child," said another. "Thankfully, my husband was nursed adequately."
Into this bristly landscape wandered Priska Diaz and her husband, Dana King. She invented the BARE bottle, after her own struggles with nursing her first child five years ago meant her doctor ordered her to supplement with a bottle. But existing bottles allowed air in as milk went out, she said in a phone interview, giving her baby indigestion and gas.
At their small kitchen table in Queens, she and King made prototypes of a ventless bottle, with a nipple that worked more like a real one, expanding in the baby's mouth. When their daughter was born 13 months later, they fed her with both breast and new bottle. Diaz left her job as a package designer for L'Oreal and worked full time licensing and manufacturing and funding the new product. Her goal, she says, was to help mothers by giving them an added option if they needed or wanted to supplement; to help babies by reducing nipple confusion; and to help fathers by, well, that's where things got complicated.
They thought that was the point they were making in the nearly 7000 tweets they have sent out over the past year or so, sometimes dozens of preprogrammed messages a day, with benign statements like "My breasts don't have air-vents, why should bottles? Meet BARE™ the only air-free baby bottle," and "BARE air-free #babybottles. Second most natural way of feeding." But last week someone got inspired (the couple won't say who) and the "Feeling like you're competing with your newborn for Mommy's attention," and the "reclaim your wife" tweets were added to the feed.
The response was swift and forceful.
"The choice to use bottles should be a personal one based on actual practicalities, not seen as a way to spice up your sex life!" wrote @Bel23
"Since when are wives property to be claimed?" @BigFashionista asked.
Danielle, @TheDizzyMama, pulled out the exclamation points to exclaim "This is absolutely disgusting! Your company clearly lacks any morals whatsoever. Will be telling all my friends not to buy!"
The conversation on Facebook was a bit more nuanced, because that is possible with no character limit.
"Yeah, not EXACTLY the message we want brands using because they think it will appeal to dads," wrote popular blogger Charlie Capen, who was vocal in the Huggies protests as well. "It's pretty misogynistic and sad," he added on the homepage of Dad 2.0, where fathers who blog often gather.
Replied Dave Taylor : ""Okay, just to stir things up, I will say that in my [former] marriage, every time we had a baby, I did feel like I lost my wife, so part of this resonates with me. Now, was that because of the baby or because she just had different priorities? That's a valid and legit discussion, but I can't say that I find the campaign completely misguided. There are definitely dads I have spoken with who feel like the baby / being a mom has stolen their wife / lover away."
Whether on Facebook or Twitter, the critics all seemed think Bittylabs was much larger than Dana, Priska, and the assistant who answers the phone.
"Your marketing team should really rethink reducing women to a pair of breasts, and men to impatient and resentful children," @j7ryan chided.
"I'd have loved to be in the meeting with @bittylab's marketing team when they thought that gem up," @CathyBussey wrote.
"Didn't you pay some people a lot of money for the advertising campaign? " asked Fran Demuth, whose twitter name is @CaptainFrantastic
No, actually, they didn't. They don't yet have the money for any kind of campaign they say, particularly for a product that can't appear in stores until September, at the earliest. ("We have totally negative cash flow," King says.")
And the two controversial tweets, they insist, were not meant to be about sex, but about time -- if a baby uses a bottle then her husband can share in the feeding -- and about helping mothers who, like Diaz, can not nurse exclusively.
They were very, very sorry, they told me in an interview. They had responded to every angry tweet they said, and directed each critic to a longer apology on the company's Facebook page, where, unfortunately, they made things worse according to some readers. Their message read:
Ladies, We're really sorry about the twitter campaign run last week. It was a huge miss understood and resulted in offensive messages. It was taken down yesterday. The messages had nothing to do with putting a husband needs before the baby's needs, it was more about having a little extra time for the rest of the family. Obviously the whole campaign was poorly executed. We apologize deeply for this miss understanding and assure you, from now on the campaigns will be closely monitored before they go out. Thank you for a second chance.
Ladies? critics asked. Why address nursing mothers as "Ladies"? And where in this apology are the men to whom the joking nudge in the ribs had been directed in the first place? (Few people seem to believe the explanation that this was all "about having a little time for the rest of the family" and see it, at best, as a winking comment that fell flat.)
"With hindsight the whole thing was poorly executed," King agrees. "We demonstrated the growing pains and naivete of a start-up.
"We are learning," he adds. And what in particular have they learned? "That when it comes to breastfeeding people have a very strong point of view."
Follow Lisa Belkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lisabelkin