McNeil Consumer Healthcare pulled almost all of its TV advertising for Tylenol a month before it shut down production at its factory in Fort Washington, Pa., according to the Nielsen Co., which tracks commercials.
The voluntary recall of children’s and infants’ liquid Tylenol products occurred on April 30 “in consultation” with the Food and Drug Administration, according to a statement from McNeil. FDA inspectors found what they called “deficiencies” at the plant that triggered the recall. McNeil closed the Fort Washington facility until further notice as the FDA probes adverse events related to products produced in the plant.
Though the recall was announced in late April, the company had already canceled the vast majority of its TV advertising for Tylenol before the end of March, Nielsen data shows [see chart].
A McNeil rep said the company did indeed pull ads, but that was in response to an earlier recall, not the April 30 one. “McNeil Consumer Healthcare did reduce the number of Tylenol advertising spots following the announcement of the recall of certain OTC products on Jan. 15, 2010. McNeil made the decision to reduce the ads due to product supply issues following the recall,” the rep said.
Despite the Tylenol recall in mid-January (there have been four in total since September 2009), McNeil ran 5,053 Tylenol ads that month—down from 14,738 in December—and ran 3,333 ads on spot, cable and network TV in February, according to Nielsen.
In March, McNeil drastically cut its TV flight, Nielsen numbers show, to just 546 ads. Only 64 Tylenol ads ran in April. Moreover, the January recall applied to products from McNeil’s Puerto Rico factory, according to the FDA, whereas the April 30 recall centers around the Fort Washington plant.
Interpublic Group’s Universal McCann, which handles media buying for Tylenol, did not respond to requests for comment.
There is almost no time lag when a client orders its ads off the air, according to Steven Farella, CEO of TargetCast TCM. His media buying agency handles Tylenol’s chief rival, Advil, for Pfizer. “If it’s like a brand recall, you can pull advertising in 24 hours in most broadcast instances. The media will cooperate,” Farella said. “You’re talking about thousands of local stations, but you’re most likely talking about a media-buying organization that has control over that.”
McNeil reps declined to comment on the timing of the pulled ads or the company’s thinking behind the decision.
Farella, however, said he believed the sharp reduction showed the company was likely motivated to cut its losses. “Clearly they were getting out of as much inventory as they [could]. There could be some syndicated inventory that is more difficult to switch out quickly, but clearly those numbers indicate they want to get out of everything. Sixty-four spots is not a campaign.”
The real problem with recalls, Farella said, is magazines, where the physical printing and trucking of the media creates lead times of up to two months.
Pfizer hasn’t really taken advantage of the situation for Advil, Nielsen numbers show. It ran 3,334 commercials in April, down from 3,851 in March. Farella declined to comment on the brand’s strategy.
To put the scale of Tylenol’s problems in financial perspective, McNeil spent about $143 million behind the brand last year. The company has said it expects to lose up to $300 million in sales on the brand. “The bigger picture is, this is a brand that has taken pretty good shots to the body over the years. How quickly can they respond to this one? This seems pretty serious,” Farella said.
Despite its latest troubles, Jim Joseph, president of Lippe Taylor Brand Communications in New York, believes Tylenol will eventually resurrect itself. Joseph spent 12 years marketing Tylenol on the agency side. He’s also the author of a new book about experiential marketing titled The Experience Effect.