McNeil Consumer Healthcare, a division of Johnson & Johnson, pulled almost all its TV advertising for Tylenol a month before the company shut down production at its factory in Fort Washington, Pa., according to the Nielsen Co., which tracks commercials.
The shutting of the facility came on the heels of a voluntary recall of children’s Tylenol products 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 that facility until further notice as the FDA probes hundreds of adverse event reports linked to Tylenol’s various products.
But despite the recall and facility closing occurring at the end of April, the company had canceled the vast majority of its Tylenol TV advertising before the end of March, Nielsen data shows.
A McNeil rep said the company’s pulled ads were in response to an earlier recall, not the one on April 30.
“McNeil Consumer Healthcare did reduce the number of Tylenol advertising spots following the announcement of the recall of certain [Tylenol OTC] products on Jan. 15, 2010,” the rep said. “McNeil made the decision to reduce the ads due to product supply issues following the recall.” (The January recall — one of four in total since September 2009 — applied to products from McNeil’s Puerto Rico factory, according to the FDA.)
In January, 5,053 Tylenol ads ran on spot, cable and network TV combined, down from 14,738 in December, according to Nielsen. In February, 3,333 ads were run. In March, McNeil ran just 546 of them on TV. By April, that number had dropped to a mere 64.
Interpublic Group’s Universal McCann, which handles media buying for Tylenol, did not respond to requests for comment.
Steven Farella, CEO of TargetCast tcm — whose media buying agency handles Tylenol’s chief rival, Advil, for Pfizer — notes that ordinarily there is almost no time lag when a client orders its ads off the air.
“If it’s like a brand recall, you can pull advertising in 24 hours in most broadcast instances,” Farella said. “The media will cooperate. 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 (pictured) 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, excluding online. 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?” Farella asked.
Despite its latest troubles, said Jim Joseph, president of Lippe Taylor Brand Communications in New York, Tylenol will eventually resurrect itself. Joseph spent 12 years marketing Tylenol on the agency side. He’s also the author of The Experience Effect, a new book about experiential marketing.