Hold the Love, J&J -- We'd Rather Have Honesty in Our Tylenol Ads

TV Spots Left Consumers With a Bad Feeling

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I got an interesting question from Liz Swick asking about the Tylenol ad campaign. Liz, a freelance multimedia developer in West Virginia, e-mailed me, "Could you shed any light on the background story behind the decision to go with the Tylenol 'We put love into the product' campaign?
Instead of its employees saying how they put love into each tablet they make, new ads on the J&J website exclude any mention of putting anything in the product.
Instead of its employees saying how they put love into each tablet they make, new ads on the J&J website exclude any mention of putting anything in the product.

"I find it odd -- especially after the company had so much praise for how they handled the tampering nightmare," she said. In 1982, Johnson & Johnson, the maker of Tylenol, removed $100 million of the brand's extra-strength capsules from supermarket and drug-store shelves. Seven people in the Chicago area had died after taking Tylenol laced with potassium cyanide, and J&J was forced to dispose of 31 million Tylenol bottles and, for a time, halted all advertising for the product.

To continue Liz's query: "The reaction I've seen from family and friends to the ad has been very negative. We don't want to think that happy employees are putting love (or anything else) in our Tylenol. In fact, we'd rather believe that they are made by emotionally neutral sterile machines. Has the ad worked?"

Thanks, Liz, for putting me onto another crisis-management situation for Tylenol. The ads have created all kinds of negative reaction.

Responding to a post on OliverWillis.com titled "I Hate This Tylenol Commercial," a commenter using the name Joyful Alternative wrote, "It was stupid. I suppose they're trying to differentiate Tylenol from the much cheaper generics, but it would work better by emphasizing 'careful' or 'meticulous' or 'competent' rather than 'loving.' My mother would prepare Tylenol for me more lovingly, but I'd rather have professionals do it."

The spots started showing up as Tylenol was on a bit of a roll in terms of market share. Sales were up 10.6% to $910 million for the 52-week period ended Nov. 4, according to Information Resources Inc. data. And that excludes Wal-Mart stores.

So Tylenol had a lot to lose when it shifted gears and tried to show how the product was much better than cheaper alternatives because it was made with love.

A J&J spokeswoman said the company "won't discuss our marketing strategy, which we consider competitive and confidential." But there's strong evidence, at least on the J&J website, that it has revised the TV spots. Instead of its employees saying how they put love into each tablet they make, new ads on the J&J website exclude any mention of putting anything in the product. Employees portrayed say things such as "I promise to do my best with 100% effort" and "We don't make store-brand pain relievers. We make Tylenol."

Isn't it interesting how little J&J has learned since it saved itself with its forthright and immediate reaction to the 1982 "tampering nightmare"?

You'd think that McNeil Labs, the unit that makes Tylenol, would be more responsive to inquiries about anything that conjures up safety issues about its major brand.

Marketers talk about the consumer being boss, but then companies such as J&J treat them like imbeciles (and imbeciles with short memories). On the same site, commenter Jeff in Chicago wrote about Tylenol's seemingly inflated price: "They NEED us to think of Tylenol in this way, with those marketing ... warm fuzzies. Acetaminophen is cheap, cheap, cheap. That's what Tylenol is too, indistinguishable in a lab from the generic. Tylenol just costs more because of the marketing, and, oh, the profit margin."

It would have been nice to hear the McNeil spokeswoman say something like: "We tried to show that our product was made with extra loving care by employees who are devoted to serving the consumer. When we discovered that consumers got another impression, we quickly changed the emphasis to their 'promise' to our customers."

Now, was that so hard, McNeil and J&J?
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