Glut of Recalls Threaten to Desensitize Consumers

Tyson, J&J, Toyota, Others Hasten to Pull Products in Age of Social Media and Transparency

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NEW YORK ( -- 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.

Just last week Toyota recalled 1 million more cars, this time the Corolla and Matrix.
Just last week Toyota recalled 1 million more cars, this time the Corolla and Matrix.
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.

Gap baby swimsuits were recalled due to 'strangulation hazard.'
Gap baby swimsuits were recalled due to 'strangulation hazard.'
"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."

2008 food recalls

2010 food recalls

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.

Marketer Product Reason
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
Pfizer Antibiotics Potential Infections
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
CostCo Eggs Salmonella Risk
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
Maytag Dishwashers Fire Hazard
Fresh Express Bagged Salad Listeria Risk
Quaker Snack Mix Salmonella
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