Digital Diapers?

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Pampers will start selling digital diapers this fall. It’s evidence of tech run amok and why we hate marketing.

The diapers will ping your smartphone every time your baby pees or poops, as well as collect movement tracking data. Along with a video monitor, the Lumi line promises to help parents “[care] for your baby’s holistic development.”

It’s just too easy to poke fun at the idea, since it makes an app that lets you order cupcakes online seem like must-have tech.

There are already many and quite reliable indicators for wet diapers, starting with wetness and followed shortly thereafter by stench and screaming. Waste and movement outcomes measured by not much, more, and a lot won’t be made more useful expressed as digital readouts.

The economic and moral implications are scary: An Alphabet/Google company called Verily is driving the project for Procter & Gamble, which means there are ways to monetize the data, er, scraped from the rear ends of all those little pre-consumers. Swaddling infants in the cozy embrace of electronic surveillance deserves more scrutiny than glossy promises of app-checking while out on a parent get-away date might provide.

So while digital diapers seem like another indication of tech run amok, I think it’s more telling to deconstruct (or creatively imagine) the horrible marketing thinking behind it.

That analysis should start with WTF, though I can just see the genesis of the project: 

First, McKinsey or Accenture produced a report on “The Digital Home” or “The Market for Parenting Technology in 2025,” in which lots of references were made to digital natives who love tech as much as they do analog things like each other and having kids.

There’s a large, thriving Greek Chorus of researchers and consultancies promoting tech development to clients looking for cover on decision-making. Just think accounting or rating firms’ cozy relationships with companies they supposedly audit.

Second, product development got the remit to apply these “facts” to its planning, probably from marketing (which likely dumped a lot of its own research into the mix). It may have been supported by one or more directives from C-Suiters arising from references to said reports read while on airplanes or in deep conversations with fellow mucky-mucks from said researchers and consultants.

This is an important point: I don’t know it for a fact, but I bet the problem that P&G needed solve was that its braintrust believed it must market more digital “stuff,” and not meet any real consumer need. I can guess it because there’s no “notification gap” when it comes to diaper changing.

Third, P&G looked around for experts to build something digital and found Verily. Partnering with tech firms is another thing that’s fashionable these days, since they’re leading a race for which there’s no conception of where, when, or how it might end, but demand a why of participation that has somehow become an established certainty (see above point about tech run amok). 

Doing so could have been written into that project remit, or perhaps Verily pitched P&G with the idea. Either way, sometime concurrent with this step there was probably an analysis that hinted at the risk the project would never make any money for the company. Maybe some employee hellbent on committing career hari-kari pointed out that the stunning profits from digitization of infant care might not materialize as the management consultants predict. 

This is when another analysis from marketing said the effort would pay for itself in branding and reputation value.

There’s money in being perceived as a leader in digitizing waves of pee and poo, or so the Powerpoint presentation may have declared. Awareness would make consumers think and feel more fondly about other P&G products (providing a perceptual “halo” is core to brand canon). Equity analysts could cite the project in their reports on the company’s vision. Millennial employees and recruits would think it was cool.

The currency of tweets, posts, likes, and shares would add up to far more value than the actual cost of implementing the project.

Even better, all those management consultancies that prompted the idea, however indirectly, could cite the project in subsequent reports…maybe even dub P&G a leader (or award-winner) in the move to transform drips and splats into bits and bytes.

Fourth, the marketing machine got to work.

A branding firm came up with the name and look and feel of the technology interface and product packaging. Lengthy manuals were created for brand rules. Slogans and tagline were penned. A marketing firm developed the advertising and, of course, a digital communications plan (there are many mommy and parenting “influencers” ready to take cash in exchange for endorsing anything short of child labor). 

A PR firm was tasked with inventing a publicity campaign to introduce “a new era” in infant care that would “elevate the brand” and “start conversations” and whatever other blather PR firms spout in exchange for clients’ hard-earned cash.

We may get our first shot at buying digital diapers this fall, but my expectation is that they’ll make a big stink (OK, sorry this time) at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Lumi will find a comfortable home among the digital hairbrushes, remote refrigerator management apps, and other “innovations” coming from other marketers reading the same trend reports.

The world is melting, the American economy lags the transformation required by it, and our public square is filled with pitched battles over perceived differences instead of debate intended to address the shared challenges we face. 

Thank goodness we’ll get digital diapers.

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