NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Call it the year of the recall. The massive recall of 550 million eggs is the biggest of its kind to hit the nation -- yet it's just one of dozens of major recalls consumers have seen in 2010. In the span of last week alone, companies like Tyson, Garmin and Johnson & Johnson pulled all manner of consumer products, including GPS devices, contact-lens solution, hip replacements, flat-screen TV wall mounts, popsicles, deli meat, baby bottle warmers and yet more Toyota cars.
It's unclear whether there's actually been a dramatic spike in 2010 in the number of recalls (a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission spokeswoman last week it doesn't track that information) or whether it's merely that the recall announcements are being faster and more broadly publicized thanks to social-media channels.
But marketing experts say companies these days are quicker to pull the trigger on a voluntary product recall both in the hopes of averting legal problems down the road and as they come to grips with conducting business in an ever-more transparent world where consumers air their grievances via Twitter and Facebook and government agencies are right there to listen.
In a possible reflection of that transparency, the warnings are starting to sound a lot scarier: consider that Fruiti Pops frozen fruit bars were recently recalled because they were linked to a rare U.S. outbreak of Typhoid fever; Gap baby swimsuits due to "strangulation hazard"; and four varieties of Kellogg cereals because of an "uncharacteristic off-flavor." Reacting to language like that, consumers seem to be heeding warning calls. Even so, there is concern mounting that the constant barrage of recall messages could eventually numb customers to such safety warnings.
"Recall fatigue is something that the FDA and other regulators may be concerned about ... whether consumers are getting desensitized to them and not reacting to them," said Chris Gidez, U.S. director of risk management and crisis communication at WPP's Hill & Knowlton. "We read about recalls every day so I wouldn't be surprised if there was some of that going on."
J&J has become a poster-child for recalls, pulling a slew of its best-known products this year, such as children's Tylenol and Motrin, Acuvue contact lens in Asia and Europe and even hip implants. Another of this year's repeat recall offenders, Toyota, last week recalled 1 million more cars, this time the Corolla and Matrix.
"As if to rub gasoline in Toyota's already painful wounds, this round of recalls is in response to consumer complaints of unexpected and therefore dangerous engine stalling, rather than the equally unexpected acceleration problems earlier this year," James Bell, executive market analyst at Kelley Blue Book said. "Toyota obviously has learned from previous mistakes and now is following a strict policy of openness and disclosure ... even to the point of describing the precise technical issue that prompted this action."
According to Gary Stockman, CEO of Omnicom Group's Porter Novelli, "What you're seeing is companies realizing they operate in a very transparent world and they are saying that 'We'll come out with it, deal with it and disseminate the information widely and we will be done with it.' The transparency driven by social media is prompting companies to make different decisions about what they do around quality issues than they would have in the past."
|NMIncite - a Nielsen-McKinsey Company|
|Chatter around recalls in 2008 (top) vs. 2010 (bottom).|
In the case of the egg recall, Walmart quickly put out a notice that it carried contaminated eggs, while CostCo last week called more than 200,000 customers to let them know they could come in for a refund. But a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association told Ad Age he had not seen any evidence among the trade group's membership ceasing serving eggs or altering menus in light of the situation as of yet. And the websites and Facebook pages of prominent breakfast restaurants like IHOP, Denny's, Hardee's, Cracker Barrel, Waffle House and Bob Evans, there is little to no discussion of the matter at all.
So far the majority of consumers are still paying attention to the recall messages, but it doesn't seem they're willing to change their lives as a result. A small sample of nearly 100 Ad Age readers in a poll last week found 76% of them still care about the messages -- but 24% said they don't.
"There have been so many recalls within the last year it makes one wonder what will be next," one of the respondents said. "First it was packaged salads & spinach, toys from China with lead paint, then Toyota, now eggs & GMC is facing a recall. As a mother I am concerned, but at the same time I am not going to have my family live in a bubble. Did I check my eggs after the recall? ... Yes. Am I going to change the way I buy eggs and start buying organic ... No."
"Is it conceivable that the frequency of recall becomes high enough that consumers begin to tune them out? Theoretically yes," said Porter Novelli's Mr. Stockman. "Masses of information come at people every day and so all of us have developed more sophisticated methods to filter that information so that we hear what's most meaningful to us."
"It almost begs for an escalated vernacular as 'recall' has been watered down ... it may take something like 'Defcon Recall 5' to show consumers they need to react," said Pete Blackshaw, exec VP, digital strategic services, at Nielsen-McKinsey Incite.
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Contributing: Michael Bush
Between January and August 2010, a staggering number of the nation's biggest food, pharma, clothing, and car marketers have initiated voluntarily recalls of products -- by the thousands and hundreds of thousands.
Source: FDA and U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
|P&G||Pet Food, Nasal Spray, Pringles||Possible Health Risks, Salmonella|
|Kellogg's||Corn Pops, Honey Smacks, Apple Jacks, Fruit Loops Cereals||Uncharacteristic Off-Flavor and Smell|
|Nestle||Baking Kits||Peanut Allergy Risk|
|Gap||Baby Swimsuits||Strangulation Hazard|
|Whole Foods Market||Tuna Steaks||High Histamine Levels|
|Trader Joes||Granola Bars||Food Borne Illness|
|Johnson & Johnson||Children's Tylenol, Motrin, Contact Lens Solution, Hip Replacements||Problematic Ingredients|
|Toyota||Avalon, Lexus, Corolla||Steering Problems, Engine Issues|
|Graco||Cribs, Strollers, High Chairs||Entrapment, Suffocation, Amputation, Fall Hazard|
|Pottery Barn||Bunk Beds, Cribs||Entrapment, Fall Hazard|
|Fisher Price||Camping Toys||Choking Hazard|
|Williams-Sonoma||Baby Bottle Warmers||Burn Hazard|
|Starbucks||Glass Water Bottles||Laceration Hazard|
|Zippo||Candle Lighters||Burn Hazard|
|Yamaha||Snowmobiles||Sudden Loss of Steering Control|
|RadioShack||Toy Helicopters||Fire Hazard|
|Pier 1||Tea Lights||Fire Hazard|
|Acer||Notebook Computers||Burn Hazard|
|Dollar General||Toy Guns||Choking Hazard|
|Ethan Allen||Roman Blinds||Strangulation Hazard|
|Crate & Barrel||Glass Water Bottles||Laceration Hazard|
|Hoover||Vaccums||Fire and Shock Hazard|
|Hewlett-Packard||Notebook Computer Batteries||Fire Hazard|
|Walmart||Coffee Makers, Eggs, Deli Meat||Fire Hazard, Salmonella Risk|
|Sony||VAIO Computers||Burn Hazard|
|Target||Children's Belts||Excessive Levels of Lead|
|Ikea||Roller Blinds, Mattresses||Strangulation, Flammability Hazard|
|McDonald's||Shrek Drinking Glasses||Cadmium Risk|
|GE||Front Load Washers||Fire and Shock Hazards|
|Fresh Express||Bagged Salad||Listeria Risk|