Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tylenol and Toyota: Recalls Leave Little Lasting Damage to the Brand Names

The Tylenol recall, from pills contaminated with a mold-related chemical, continues to expand. Yet my initial thought, that this could permanently damage the Tylenol brand, proved to be an overreaction.

The maker of Tylenol is probably not even done announcing the recall — additional product lots were added last weekend — but the story is four weeks old, and the news media has moved on.

Johnson & Johnson still needs to find the source of the mold. The explanation offered so far, that it came from transportation pallets, is not entirely convincing, though it is a step in the right direction. If this incident can persuade the pharmaceutical industry to stop using wooden pallets to transport the empty pill containers from the container factory to the pill factory, and switch to a material that can be routinely cleaned, that can only help. In defense of Johnson & Johnson, its technicians are having to trace micrograms of a highly irritating chemical, which is not an easy task. It is hard to find simply because the amount is so small.

But as long as the news doesn’t get worse, Johnson & Johnson doesn’t need to worry about any lasting damage to the Tylenol brand. The proof of this is found in the dozens of talking heads and columnists comparing the new Toyota recalls to the Tylenol recall of a generation ago — all of them completely forgetting that Tylenol is in the middle of an equally problematic recall right now.

What this tells you is that the news doesn’t have the reach it once had. If people who work for the news media have already forgotten one of the top stories of last month, what are the chances of the story sticking in the minds of the general public?

Toyota, for its part, can take heart from this effect. Assuming Toyota proceeds to solve its pedal problems, its current difficulties may be forgotten just as quickly.