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Johnson & Johnson baby powder

How Johnson & Johnson Can Respond to Its Rough Year

Hal Conick

Johnson & Johnson baby powder

Johnson & Johnson faces more than 11,700 claims that its talcum powder causes cancer and could soon face more lawsuits after its 2006 marketing plan was publicly revealed by Reuters. How should the company communicate with the public?

Johnson & Johnson is mired in a controversial year. In 2018, a jury ordered the company to pay $4.69 billion to a group of 22 women who blamed the company’s talcum powder for their ovarian cancer diagnoses, per Bloomberg.

Now, the company faces more than 11,700 claims that it’s talc-based baby powder causes cancer and could soon confront more lawsuits.

Last week, Reuters reported that in 2006—when the World Health Organization classified cosmetic talc powder as “possibly carcinogenic” and talc supplier Luzenac America Inc. included that information on shipments to the company—Johnson & Johnson segmented its talc marketing campaign to black and obese women without alerting the public that the product could potentially cause cancer.

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A 2006 internal marketing plan from Johnson & Johnson, obtained by Reuters, shows that the company said that the right place to focus marketing its talc powder would be underdeveloped areas with hot weather and a larger population of black people. The company sent samples of its Baby Powder product through churches and beauty salons in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. It also launched a radio campaign to reach “curvy Southern women 18-49 skewing African American.”

Amid lawsuits and negative reporting, what should brands do? Should they communicate with customers about the negative reporting and lawsuits?

“That’s a tough question,” says Luke Hopkins, assistant department chair of the marketing department at Florida State University, who focuses his research on managing customer relationships, especially when brands must deliver bad news to customers. “Without clear proof that J&J knew baby powder was dangerous, I would be shocked if they addressed it directly. Even [a benign statement] could be manipulated into an admission of guilt in today’s age of real-time communication and information sharing.”

Marketing News asked Hopkins further about Johnson & Johnson’s situation.

If reporting by Reuters is accurate, Johnson & Johnson put customers’ lives in danger for years, then targeted black and obese populations. How can a company reckon with something like this publicly?

The controversial piece to this story is that Johnson & Johnson supposedly put profits before customers—which I find incredibly questionable since J&J essentially invented the product recall with the way they handled the Tylenol scare in the early ’80s.

The fact that documents have emerged showing that J&J openly targeted black and obese populations isn’t scandalous; it is segmentation. So, to answer your question, I believe J&J needs to communicate that they do in fact target specific segments of the population with certain products (like every other successful company in existence), but they would never sell a dangerous product to any consumers. The headlines tell a very misleading story.

More lawsuits are expected this year, per Barrons. How should companies communicate with consumers and the public while being sued?

What our research shows is that the key to conveying bad news to customers is honesty and transparency. Similar to what one might experience when ending a romantic relationship, you’re much better off telling the person it is over instead of withdrawing in hopes that the person goes away.

What’s a lesson other brands can take from Johnson & Johnson to avoid a similar mess?

I’m not sure if J&J has done anything wrong at this point. What makes this story newsworthy is that people are suggesting J&J knew about the dangers. If they didn’t know the product was harmful, this discussion wouldn’t take place. A story about a major company who does a great job creating a product that helps solve a customer’s problem doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Hal Conick is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at hconick@ama.org or on Twitter at @HalConick.