Tuesday, December 8

Being Run In Circles: Zhu Zhu Pets

Within hours after the GoodGuide, an environmental and social consumer advocacy company, issued a release that some of the hottest toys this season contained levels of antimony and chromium that exceed federal standards, the Internet lit up with with searches for Zhu Zhu Pet recall information.

Except, consumers couldn't find much credible information beyond opinion and speculation. There was no recall.

The truth was that Cepia LLC, the manufacturer of Zhu Zhu Pets, had met federal standards and stricter regulations overseas. And in response, the company immediately issued a statement that Mr. Squiggles and Zhu Zhu Pets are “absolutely safe and has passed the most rigorous testing in the toy industry for consumer health and safety.”

The statement went on to provide a detailed accounting of testing procedures, which include independent tests several times during production and again before the items are shipped from the factory. It also included CEO Russ Hornsby's personal assurances that as a father and toy maker with 35 years of experience in the toy industry, that the company not only strives to meet U.S. and European standards, but strives to exceed them.

However, even with the statement, it took two days before Zhu Zhu Pets would be exonerated, with the GoodGuide retracting its release after the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said the toy was in compliance. The discrepancy was in the testing methodology, with federal standards employing a soluble method and the GoodGuide using a surface-based method.

In one of the better accounts of the testing discrepancies, Jennifer Taggart, the founder of The Smart Mama, helped set the record straight. She points out that the U.S. standard is 60 ppm soluble antimony in paints and surface coatings used on children’s toys, not antimony as found with the Niton XRF analyzer used for testing surfaces. She goes on to conclude: "I call out greenwashing all the time. It goes both ways, you know?"

In an era of infinite information, inaccuracy spreads fast.

Even after the GoodGuide results were refuted, some news outlets still ran with the initial, erroneous release. Bloggers, unaware of the retraction, are still advising parents to think twice.

One suggested parents avoid the toy because antimony limits set today will likely be lowered tomorrow. Another suggested that because they are made in China, they are tied to impoverished and exploited people. And yet others doubted the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission investigation and clearance, given that GoodGuide was once featured on Oprah and, supposedly, is conducting a more rigorous test (even though they are not).

In a summation of all the content, most opinions were wrong and most coverage, even by news outlets, were nothing more than a reactionary game of "he said, he said." Specifically, news outlets covered the allegation, the response, outside opinions, and eventual retraction with most never investing any time in researching the truth.

Antimony is not a random chemical as many inferred. While dangerous in concentrated doses, it is a metal used to meet other safety standards as a flame retardant. It is frequently added to children's clothing, toys, crib mattresses, aircraft, and automobile seat covers. It is also used in electronics, paints, rubber, ceramics, enamels, and some drugs. So while GoodGuide still maintains it is cause for concern in any amount, its presence does not mean the toys are unsafe.

Federal testing methods (soluble) consider how much of the substance could be removed by dermal, ingestion, or inhalation at 60 ppm. The GoodGuide testing methods do not. While the GoodGuide regretted the error, it hasn't come close to offering an apology to the company or consumers nor did its retraction statement mention the toys by name.

GoodGuide makes everyone run in circles for little or nothing.

The general predisposition of the public is that companies, for love of profit, are bad; consumer advocacy groups, despite being profitable, are good; and news organizations vet the facts. Sometimes, this is true. Other times, with increasingly regularity and in this case specifically, it's not.

However, with the adoption of infinite information as a model, things have changed. Here, the advocacy group sensationalized erred testing methods, which mainstream and social media helped propagate at the expense of what appears to be an honest toy manufacturer with the biggest hit of the season. The lesson here is that the quantity of information doesn't always lead to more truth but rather popular opinion regardless of the truth.

The lesson that has yet to be learned is how future public relations professionals will be taught to manage this information. By our count, most are too busy rushing to social media in the hopes of becoming client cheerleaders and influencer relationship brokers.

While Cepia LLC did a better job defending its product as safe than the GoodGuide did in in admitting it was wrong, the erred information outpaced accurate information via social media. Most news outlets have reported follow ups, but few have amended their original stories.

Incidentally, the Bakugan 7-in-1 Maxus Dragonoid and the Fisher Price Laugh & Learn Learning Farm were also included as hazardous in the original GoodGuide release, but escaped the same scrutiny.


Jennifer Taggart, TheSmartMama on 12/8/09, 8:19 PM said...

Very well written post. I have no affiliation whatsoever with Cepia, LLC, but still felt compelled to post on countless blogs and twitter about the difference between XRF testing for total antimony and the US standard for soluble antimony because I want accurate information. I was mostly frustrated becasue people have no idea what is in the products they use. Many remained alarmed about 103 ppm antimony (or 0.01%) but failed to recognize that the concentration in mattresses, children's pajamas, lead free solder, etc. are substantially higher than what was found in Mr. Squiggles. The debate needs to be about exposure risk not just presence of chemical. But that isn't the point of your blog. What is the point is that journalists and bloggers alike did NO FACT CHECKING. It was incredibly easy to discern that the Good Guide used XRF analysis - which is total - and the standard is soluble. All of the information was readily available.

Rich on 12/9/09, 8:56 AM said...

Thank you Jennifer,

It didn't seem to me that you had any affiliation whatsoever with Cepia, LLC. It did seem to me that you had a natural sense to find the story better than some public relations professionals I know.

You're right on target that there is no fact checking being done. It used to be that journalists would receive a release like that one and call for expert opinions and then be the ones who spotted the error, thus, killing the story.

In the modern world, editors are too afraid that someone might run with the release before they have had time to fact check it ... so they run with it too, leaving bloggers to report on the reporting.

Personally, my hopes are associated with finding more people like you who are willing to do the heavier lifting in order to find the truth. Anything else is just the promotion of opinionated sound bites and fear mongering for visitor clicks. Those things, we could all do without.



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