By NATASHA SINGER and
New York Times, Business Section, Jan. 16, 2011
LITTLE red flags jut out from the shelves at a
drugstore in suburban Boston, alerting shoppers to
shortages of nearly a dozen
products. Among them are Motrin, Rolaids, children’s
Tylenol liquid and adult Tylenol, Mylanta, Pepcid AC and even some Neutrogena skin care products.
“Looking for Tylenol pain relief products?” asks one of the signs. The notices at CVS serve as a stark
reproof to Johnson & Johnson, whose brands have for more than a century been synonymous with
quality. Some of its products are in short supply at drugstores and supermarkets because the McNeil
Consumer Healthcare unit of J.& J. last year recalled about 288 million items, including about 136
million bottles of liquid Tylenol, Motrin, Zyrtec and Benadryl for infants and children.
Johnson & Johnson has had to recall such a variety of products because of quality-control problems
across product lines, in multiple factories and in several units last year. Some of its consumer products,
for instance, may have contained bits of metal. Others came in bottles with a moldy smell. And some
products have gone missing from stores with hardly an explanation. All of this has put the company and
its manufacturing under the intense scrutiny of lawmakers and officials at the
Food and Drug
“It looks like a plane spinning out of control,” says David Vinjamuri, a former J.& J. marketing employee
who now trains brand managers at his company, ThirdWay Brand Trainers.
While the drugstore signs that helpfully suggest “Try CVS/pharmacy brand” are intended to assist
frustrated shoppers in identifying alternatives to missing brand-name products, they also serve as constant
reminders of another of J.& J.’s continuing problems: It must persuade millions of disappointed
customers to once again pay a premium for products that may no longer seem to be of any higher quality
than the less expensive store brand.
“I don’t even consider buying them any more,” says Thien-Kim Lam, a mother of two and a
Silver Spring, Md. In a post last spring titled
“Makers of Tylenol, I’m Disappointed in You”
on the blog
DC Metro Moms, Ms. Lam wrote about the huge recall of J.& J. infants’ and children’s medicines.
Now, she says, the frequent recalls have prompted her to switch to generic cold and cough medicines for
her children. “It’s like a breakup,” she says. “I’m done. I’ve moved on.”
Bonnie Jacobs, a McNeil spokeswoman, says the company is committed to restoring McNeil’s reputation
as a world-class manufacturer of over-the-counter medicines. “We will invest the necessary resources and
make whatever changes are needed to do so, and we will take the time to do it right,” she wrote in an e-
mail last Thursday.
If Queen Elizabeth II had been the chief executive of Johnson & Johnson, she might have called 2010 an