It’s been three weeks since investigative journalists at ProPublica published a long profile of the severe potential danger in overusing the pain reliever acetaminophen. The report’s most damaging allegations were not that 150 people a year die from acetaminophen but that safety agencies and manufacturers—especially household acetaminophen brand Tylenol—knew how dangerous the drug was and did little to warm users.
ProPublica’s several stories, which make claims like, “[Tylenol maker] McNeil opposed even a modest government campaign to educate the public about acetaminophen’s risks, in part because it would harm Tylenol sales,” are pretty damning for the brand, but the government agencies that oversee such operations don’t make it out unscathed either. “Over more than 30 years, the FDA has delayed or failed to adopt measures designed to reduce deaths and injuries from acetaminophen. The agency began a comprehensive review to set safety rules for acetaminophen in the 1970s, but still has not finished,” another report says.[more]
The cycle of deception, misinformation and general disregard by Tylenol, McNeil and parent Johnson & Johnson hasn’t just affected the Tylenol brand. In fact, many consumer products and over-the-counter drugs made by the conglomerate have faced serious recalls as the manufacturer tussles with widespread quality control issues—some that have resulted in manufacturing plants being shutdown by the FDA. J&J’s new CEO Alex Gorsky has said that solving the quality issues will be top of mind during his tenure—a sentiment that was largely ignored by former CEO William Weldon in favor of cost-cutting.
But in the case of the ProPublica reports, the damaging information is not that the drug can cause unintended liver damage with overuse; that happens frequently with all kinds of perfectly legal pharmaceuticals. Instead, it’s the suggestion that Tylenol (and the FDA) knew full well how dangerous the drug was and failed to do more to warn consumers. In fact, following the report, the brand has quickly reacted with several campaigns that aim to both distract—and educate—consumers about the proper usage of the Tylenol brand family of medicines.
Its new celebrity-driven campaign, “Smiling it Forward,” enlists American Pie and How I Met Your Mother actress Alyson Hannigan, and her two adorable tots, to tout its pediatric Tylenol products in a campaign that aims to engage other moms—and to raise up to $100,000 for the Children’s Health Fund. The campaign broke days before the ProPublica report, of which Tylenol was no doubt aware was about to land.
Meanwhile, J&J’s McNeil division, which manufactures Tylenol products, also launched a “Get Relief Responsibly” initiative, which includes a microsite detailing changes to Tylenol’s dosing recommendations, which were first adjusted for the Extra Strength version in 2011, as well as FAQs and general information about the generic pain reliever. McNeil has also debuted a new bottle-top warning label on Extra Strength Tylenol bottles that urges consumers to follow dosing instructions.
So while Tylenol works to protect its public image, it seems that the ProPublica report may not be as damaging as it was intended to be. The circumstances surrounding the tragic outcomes are convoluted, with Tylenol-maker McNeil Consumer Healthcare looking terribly inept, but only as much as the federal agencies meant to look out for consumers.
This is certainly no Chicago 1982, when Tylenol tainted with cyanide killed seven and triggered one of the greatest recalls in history, ultimately costing Tylenol some $100 million not to mention extensive brand damage. Also diffusing the damage to Tylenol is the fact that the damage isn’t from the brand alone, but from acetaminophen, which is also widely purchased in generic form.
What’s more, ProPublica itself has become a story of its own after it was revealed that the two reporters behind the report spent two years and $750,000 on the story, as the media blog Strange Attractor put it, “to state the obvious.” As the blog notes, one of the first results when Googling the drug is a WebMD page that states, “When taken incorrectly, however, acetaminophen can cause liver damage.”
And in an ironic twist, ProPublica might have done Tylenol a favor by putting together such a comprehensive report, as for many of the same reasons that consumers don’t carefully read the Tylenol dosing instructions, many may look at ProPublica’s coverage and conclude, “too long; didn’t read.” For one, despite having been on YouTube since August, a related ProPublica video about Tylenol dangers has generated fewer than 100 views; another has short of 500.
In the end though, neither ProPublica nor Hannigan will likely hurt nor help the Tylenol brand as the product, like the millions of Johnson & Johnson devotees, has too many satisfied users. In some ways, Tylenol’s battle is being fought for it in the court of public opinion as those who swear by Tylenol come to the brand’s defense by more or less saying, “Well, yeah, duh—read the label.”
And history indicates that the Tylenol brand will be fine, too. In fact, it will be more than fine and consumers might stand to benefit as well. Following the 1982 disaster, Tylenol completely recovered its market share by, in part, innovating with a new tamper-proof product called the “gelcap.”
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