On May 5 of last year, Stephen Joseph, legal counsel to a group called Ban Trans Fat, filed a lawsuit against Kraft Foods aimed at banning the sale of Oreo cookies in California. Food manufacturers and their allies appeared to have been blind-sided by the suit. But according to new research conducted by Internet monitoring specialist BuzzMetrics, they shouldn’t have been.

By the end of May, the lawsuit had been dropped, after Kraft agreed to change the formulation of its cookies. Food manufacturers and their allies hailed the dropping of the lawsuit as a victory—similar to the dismissal of an earlier lawsuit brought against McDonald’s by anti-obesity activists. But in reality, the BuzzMetrics research shows, the withdrawal of the suit was inconsequential, because after three weeks of intensive media coverage, its purpose had been served.

Indeed, the firm’s examination of this one issue demonstrates how important it is for corporate communications professionals to monitor with the Internet chatter about their companies, their brands, and their issues and how important online discussions—particularly those among opinion leaders—can be during a corporate crisis.

BuzzMetrics, which specializes in word-of-mouth research, conducted an analysis of more than 2.6 million comments from over 120,000 individuals participating in thousands of online discussion groups in an attempt to understand how the issue of trans fats evolved and ultimately crossed over into mainstream media. The resulting report, The 2003 Trans Fat Issue, is the company’s first publicly released study detailing the impact and intricacy of word-of-mouth phenomena and consumer online discussion patterns.

“Typically, when we are doing this kind of research, it’s for a brand or a company that is currently embattled,” says BuzzMetrics president and CEO Jonathan Carson. “In this particular case, we were able to look at the issue in retrospect and see how it evolved.”

Before the lawsuit, 82 percent of conversations about trans fat occurred in dedicated nutrition, fitness and health forums, fueled by self-appointed and often authoritative subject-matter experts; just 11 percent of trans fat discussions occurred in other mainstream forums.

“The discussion was taking place in hard core nutrition forums, very concentrated within this insular little world,” says Carson. “But it was clearly intensifying. You could see the language changing. People were starting to call is ‘the devil’s fat’ and using terms like ‘Satan’ or ‘the plague’ to discuss the health problems. A lot of the discussion was being led by people in Europe, who couldn’t understand why Americans were paying so little attention to the whole issue of trans fats.”

The influence of European voices was interesting, says Carson, because it demonstrated the global nature of online word-of-mouth. Overseas nutrition experts were able to discuss the steps taken by their own governments to reduce the amount of trans fat in food. As a result, “some consumers even expressed conspiracy theories involving food manufacturers and the U.S. government.”

Meanwhile, industry sources were largely absent from the debate. “We didn’t see any presence from the companies involved,” says Carson.

But if companies were unaware of—or unwilling to participate in—the online discussion, they were certainly aware of the trans fat issue.

According to the Ban Trans Fat campaign, “nothing in our food supply is more dangerous than trans fatty acids,” which are produced by the partial hydrogenation of oils used in thousands of products, including cakes, cookies, other baked goods, many diet and health foods, and in most restaurants. The campaign cites a Harvard School of Health Report, which claims that replacing partially hydrogenated fat in the U.S. diet with natural unhydrogenated vegetable oils would prevent around 100,000 deaths a year.

The issue first surfaced in 1993, when the New York Times reported on a Harvard study that found a link between the vegetable fat used in fryers and increased risk of heart disease and breast cancer. In the 1990s, the Center for Science in Public Interest struggled in vain to draw attention to the issue and to persuade the FDA to include information about trans fats on food labels. But until recently, concern about trans fats was drowned out by the larger debate about obesity.

It was the lack of media interest in—and public understanding of—trans fats that provided the basis for the Ban Trans Fat lawsuit. The group relied on California Civil Code Section 1714.45, which provides that a manufacturer or seller is subject to product liability for “a common consumer product intended for personal consumption” if the product is not “known to be unsafe by the ordinary consumer who consumes the product with the ordinary knowledge common to the community.” (The assumption is that the harmful effects of tobacco and fast foods are well known, and so consumers exercise informed consent when they buy and use those products.)

The filing of the Ban Trans Fat lawsuit against Oreos caused the volume of online discussions about trans fat to increase more than eightfold in less than a month. And while those discussions eventually tapered off, they remained three times above normal levels through the end of 2003. Moreover, the average length of online conversations about trans fat increased 50 percent after the lawsuit from 11 comments per conversation to 17, an indication of more in-depth conversation and alarm.

The suit also created a sea change in the nature of online discussion about Oreos. Says Carson, “Prior to the lawsuit, consumers did not link Oreo to trans fat, but rather to other topics like recipes, purchasing, product feedback and dieting. However, following the suit, 90 percent of messages mentioning Oreo referenced trans fat or the lawsuit. Likewise, parent company Kraft was not mentioned in conjunction with trans fat prior to the lawsuit, but after the lawsuit fully 30 percent of online discussion concerning Kraft focused on trans fat or the suit.”

Kraft and the Oreo brand appeared in 17 percent and 26 percent of trans fat mentions respectively, putting the company at the center of the online trans fat discussion. However, other companies and food brands were targeted: McDonald’s was mentioned in 8 percent of trans fat discussions; Doritos 16 percent; Crisco 16 percent; and Skippy 8 percent. A variety of generic food categories also were mentioned in association with the trans fat controversy: baked goods and cookies (32 percent); margarine (21 percent); fast food (13 percent); and peanut butter (10 percent).

But most of those companies and industries limited their response to issuing prepared statements or press releases. BuzzMetrics did not come across a single instance of corporate spokespeople engaging with their online stakeholders.

Says Carson, “There were plenty of public pronouncements, but they had relatively little impact on the online discussions. It was like a game of ‘telephone.’ By the time those statements filtered down to the discussion rooms, they were being interpreted in a host of different ways.”

The other problem with the corporate response, Carson says, is that it focused on challenging the validity of the lawsuit.

“People in the discussion groups thought the lawsuit was bogus,” he says. “They didn’t really care about the lawsuit. But they cared about the issue, and when companies concentrated on the lawsuit and talked about their response to it they ignored the larger issue, and in that way they simply fueled cynicism and hostility.

“In an issue that has a viral component, communicating from on high can be very dangerous.”

In fact, the lawsuit was dropped after only a few days. But by that time, it had achieved its purpose.

“The factual and legal basis for the lawsuit when it was filed was that the American people did not know about trans fat,” said Joseph. “After three days of incredible national publicity, everyone in America knows about trans fats… The factual and legal basis for the lawsuit has totally disappeared.”

In fact, the Oreo lawsuit succeeded in generating more publicity than a decade of serious academic study. “This suit is sort of the first time there has been a tremendous amount of publicity,” said nutritionist Mary Enig, author of Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils, and Cholesterol. “It’s been difficult to get the message out.”

Kraft responded quickly, promising to reduce or eliminate the trans fat in the Oreo. Less than a year later, the company announced the introduction of three new varieties of its Oreo cookies containing zero grams of trans fat per serving.

And later in the year, Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced plans for food labels to list the amount of unhealthy trans fatty acids. “We are empowering Americans to make healthier choices about the foods they eat,” said Thompson. “By putting trans fat information on food labels, we are making it possible for consumers to make better educated choices to lower their intake of these unhealthy fats and cholesterol. It’s just one more way we’re helping consumers lead healthier lives.”

Moreover, the discussion of trans fats had expanded beyond the nutrition forums. After the suit, mainstream forums accounted for more than 30 percent of the discussions about trans fat, while health forums accounted for just over 50 percent.

“The trans fat crisis demonstrates why companies in any industry must not disregard their vocal online constituents, but rather embrace them and proactively manage communications,” said Carson. “By analyzing stakeholder word-of-mouth online, companies can measure the changing volume and dispersion of visibility and interest, gauge ongoing public perception and evaluate feedback on the company’s communications efforts.”