In the suit, the organization claimed that the popular snacks were plugging Californians' arteries with unhealthy fats called trans fats, also known as hydrogenated oils.
Soon after the suit was filed, public interest in trans fats peaked. And while most people felt the suit was frivolous, the public and government began to focus intensely on the deleterious health issues associated with these processed fats.
Just two months later, Kraft announced it would begin to cut trans fats out of its many snack products, and shortly afterwards, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring manufacturers to list trans fat content on nutrition-fact labels.
During the months before and after the suit was filed, a word-of-mouth marketing research firm called BuzzMetrics tracked more than 2.6 million comments about trans fats in various online forums, discussion groups and blogs from more than 120,000 people.
The Ban Trans Fats suit was eventually dropped, but BuzzMetrics' study showed that the damage had been done: Kraft and Oreo were mentioned in 17 percent and 26 percent of the 2.6 million comments about trans fats, respectively, showing that the public clearly linked the dangers of consuming processed oils with the company and one of its most famous products.
"The controversy over trans fats is a seminal case of the dramatic role that online communities and their influential participants play during industry crises," Jonathan Carson, CEO of BuzzMetrics, said in an Aug. 16, 2004, press release announcing his firm's research report on the trans fat situation. "Online word of mouth enabled a lawsuit against one company to shift into a major food-industry policy and public relations crisis."
Kraft is not one of BuzzMetrics' clients. But the results of the firm's research was instructive to many companies that are its clients, including blue chip companies such as General Motors, Hewlett-Packard and Target, that engage BuzzMetrics to monitor, track and analyze the ways that the public talks online about their products and brands.
Another business that helps companies with the monitoring of blogs, discussion groups and other forums is Cincinnati's Intelliseek, which represents industry giants such as Canon, Ford Motor, Microsoft, Nokia, Philips, Sony, Procter & Gamble, Toyota and others.
The premise behind services like these, as well as companies' own internal Internet-monitoring programs, is that online discussions--be it in forums, on blogs or elsewhere--are a modern replacement for customer satisfaction surveys or focus group reports, which can take months to compile and analyze.
"When you're listening to the Internet, the discussion is taking place in real time," said Intelliseek spokeswoman Sue MacDonald. "We're able very quickly, sometimes in a matter of days, to pick up on what consumers are saying. If there's certain issues, like safety recalls or any mention of a boycott, we can set up an alert, so that we can alert a company or a brand so they can be on their guard and be ready to react, if that's what it takes."