Soap Opera: The Inside Story of Proctor & Gamble

review © 1994 Laurie D. T. Mann

(Alecia Swasy, Times Books, 1993, $24.00, probably out in paperback now)

Alecia Swasy's Soap Opera is an engrossing look at Proctor & Gamble. She reveals more dirty laundry about P&G than several cases of Bold could clean. In most cases, she is not discussing the merits of the P&G products, but rather the work environment in which P&G employees operate. This work environment includes spying, wire-tapping, discrimination, payoffs, and a corporate culture that typifies the '50s "Corporate Man" mentality.

Ms. Swasy, formerly based in Pittsburgh, reported on P&G for The Wall Street Journal in the late '80s. She conducted hundred of hours of interviews with both present and past P&G employees for this exhaustive look inside P&G. She describes the atmosphere at P&G as "A paternalistic environment (that) strips employees of privacy and independent thinking. Medical and police records are scrutinized. Phone calls are monitored. Security guards tail managers on business trips."

It was interesting to learn that P&G has not successfully launched a new product in many years. Pampers, launched in 1961, appears to be P&G's last original product. Instead of developing new products, P&G has moved to acquire other companies, such as Richardson-Vicks, Inc. and Max Factor. Perhaps this lack of product introduction is related to the very restrictive P&G corporate culture.

Ms. Swasy follows up a general look at P&G and its history with many specific incidents illustrating P&G's fixation on gaining the all-mighty market share. The most outrageous example of this fixation was P&G's reaction to the link between Rely tampons and toxic shock syndrome back in 1980.

As early as 1975, initial testing on the product indicated that using Rely tampons made some women sick. The super absorbent tampon encouraged the growth of bacteria. In 1980, P&G went all out to promote the Rely tampons, including sending free samples across the country. In August, P&G was notified that a woman died from TSS after using Rely tampons. The Center for Disease Control reported in September that 70% of all women suffering from TSS used Rely tampons.

It took pressure from the Food & Drug Administration to force P&G to recall the product. Seven women died and thousands became ill while P&G fought to downplay the connection between Rely tampons and TSS.

Ms. Swasy takes an in-depth look at the pollution a P&G-owned paper mill dumped into a river in Florida, and the lengths P&G went to intimidate people to not complain about it. The water became so polluted that, even while P&G was denying the problem, the company brought bottled water into the mill for the managers to drink.

Ms. Swasy falters a few times in the book. She overemphasizes the spying P&G did on her and on the people who spoke to her about P&G, which included extracting millions of phone call records from the phone company. While clearly unethical behavior, she goes into a little much detail over it. She builds excellent cases that P&G has intimidated employees, retail outlets, the mass media, litigants, and consumer advocates. However, she also says that P&G has intimidated consumers, a charge she does not quite substantiate. She presents a good case that P&G manipulates consumers, but the same point can be made about almost any industry that sells anything.

Soap Opera portrays P&G as a fine place to work if you can "play the game." The benefits are good, the pay is competitive, and you can be employed for life if you wish.

However, the company demands complete loyalty, workaholism, and no boat rockers. Perhaps people choose to work there because it is such a large company, and its products are so pervasive in this society. Perhaps people work there for job security (although with the layoffs and restructurings of the '80s and '90s, this job security is no longer as sure as it once was). Perhaps "it has to do with the ecstatic human longing to submit, to be a part of something greater than oneself...The surrender of individual judgment is the source of the appeal..."

Alicia Swasy did not make this observation about P&G. Lawrence Wright did in the November 22 issue of The New Yorker in his fine essay on Jonestown.

This book is a valuable book, not only for consumers who fund P&G through their purchases, but as a cautionary tale for people in business. P&G has produced millions of products for over a hundred years, but the cost may be higher than P&G would care to admit.