Don’t Risk it

Headline following crisis

On September 29th and 30th, 1982, in suburban Chicago, Illinois, seven people were declared dead after consuming extra strength capsules of Tylenol that had been laced with potassium cyanide while on store shelves. All eyes were on the makers of Tylenol, Johnson & Johnson, to see how they would react to such tragic events. For such a highly reputable brand that had enjoyed a 16% improvement in sales from the previous year, things were looking grim. Although it had been ruled out that anyone at Johnson & Johnson had poisoned the capsules because they came from multiple distribution centers, they took the hit to their reputation. Founded in 1886, Johnson & Johnson faced a tough decision- pull the Tylenol brand from the market, or use their nearly century old sterling reputation to fight for the brand’s recovery. Although they were not at fault for the murders, Johnson & Johnson were associated with the crime carried out with one of their most highly regarded products.

Tylenol’s pattern of growth prior to crisis

The process Johnson & Johnson went about to bring calm to a tragic event was a multistep process. This path of repair would require a knowledgeable yet firm repairman to get the job done to lead the company back into the high regards of the public. Johnson & Johnson, led by CEO James E. Burke were experiencing a record high in sales when tragedy struck. Along with the lives of the innocent victims, the unidentified assailant who tampered with the Tylenol bottles also knocked Johnson & Johnson down a few pegs. In the following months, it was paramount that they revived their image. Part of this approach came from their pre-existing strength as a trusted family brand. Using this to their advantage, Johnson & Johnson set out to repair the damages done, and then made further improvements so this could not be repeated. Since the establishment of their Credo (their mission statement), Johnson & Johnson made it clear that their “first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services” (Johnson & Johnson). Taking this to heart, the company set out on a reparative mission. This included accepting responsibility for the incident, recalling millions of bottles of extra strength Tylenol capsules (costing an upward of 100 million USD), coupons for other products as compensation, and adverts vowing to make this inconvenience up to their consumers. Although it was unclear as to who the true intended target of the crimes were, they shook the lives of both the public, the direct victims and their families, as well as the foundations of Johnson & Johnson and the Tylenol brand.

Can you tell the difference?

With only five extra strength bottles of Tylenol capsules being identified as containing the lethal substance of cyanide potassium instead of headache curing Tylenol, no one could truly feel safe taking the capsules. Causing a great stir among consumers, choosing a pain reliever product became increasingly more painful. Though one could simply check their capsules before ingesting it, to the untrained eye, there is little to no difference in the appearance of the actual powder contained inside anTylenol Extra-Strength capsule versus lethal dosage of cyanide potassium.

As the public was sent reeling after the sudden, shocking deaths that shook both the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois and the nation, panic was rising throughout the factories and office buildings of Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical corporation. Before immediately pointing the finger to an outside attacker, Johnson & Johnson looked inward to determine if they had been the root of the problem. However, once it was determined that the tampered bottles were from several different production plants, it was certain that this was not a self-inflicted attack. With no known attacker found, it was uncertain who the true intended targets were. Was this simply an act to send a wave of shock and terror down the spines of millions of Americans, or was this a malicious act against the brand of Tylenol itself? Regardless, this did not stop Johnson & Johnson from taking action, seeking to defend itself and the public consumers. Although they had not committed the criminal offense, it was the company and the brand’s responsibility to make amends for it. The makers of Tylenol took steps similar to that of restorative justice, which author Elizabeth Spelman makes a point in her book of, Repair: The Impulse to Restore, “who has been harmed; how they have been harmed; and how the offender, community, and the criminal justice system can help repair the harm” (Spelman 51). With such turmoil, the customers of Tylenol were panicked and unsure whether the product could ever be trusted again. However, it did not take long for their trusted reputation to bounce back with the help of adverts instructing people how to return their possibly dangerous capsules with their extra strength tablets.

Scale of Recall efforts shown on nightly news broadcast

Public outcry and morality drove Johnson & Johnson to an unprecedented major mass recall of their extra strength Tylenol capsules across the United States. Although they lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the process, the recall proved to be successful. A managing director, Albert Tortorella, from the New York public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller Inc. that advised Johnson & Johnson said, “Before 1982, nobody ever recalled anything,” (Rehak). Rather than passively allowing the occurrence to wipe them out of the pharmaceutical manufacturing playing field, they took command of the situation. In addition to the recall, according to ABC News, CEO James E. Burke of Johnson & Johnson “offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who could determine who poisoned the pills” (ABC News). Moving forward in this way, Johnson & Johnson progressed from this damaging string of attacks helped make them the prime example of how to handle similar situations with “defective” products. Instead of being a product that brought alleviation, its image was tainted by someone with sinister intentions. Stock prices and sales dropped dramatically, and the brand of Tylenol was headed for an abrupt end after a successful run of almost one hundred years. A crisis occurred, and it was up to the discretion of Johnson & Johnson to either let the incident ruin their brand forever, or to rise from it.

Newly instituted tamperproof

Rather than allowing this incident to destroy them, Johnson & Johnson CEO James E. Burke stepped into the role of a repairman, and “not only restored Tylenol, his company’s single most important profit maker, to preeminence, but he also enhanced the company’s fine reputation in the process” (Moore). This taking of responsibility was the first key step towards the repair of the brand’s reputation. This was paired with a wave of television coupon offers to get sales back up after they dipped following the incident. A key component was the urgency to fix this problem so that it may not be replicated again in the future. Next came the institution of tamper-proof plastic sealings on all bottles sent to stores. This feature would prevent any future attacks in similar nature to those of the Chicago deaths, but would also revolutionize how consumers viewed their products. If the seal was broken, that would be a good sign not to buy that specific product. This step not only protected Tylenol from a similar attack, but also helped other companies learn to keep the consumers safe.

With all the chaos consuming Johnson & Johnson in light of the deaths, Burke redeemed the company and the brand’s reputation. However, rather than reciting a mandated apology for the poison that was packed with their product name on it, Johnson & Johnson broke this pattern. Instead of issuing a blanket statement apology, the company let their actions do the talking for them. This allowed them to further their process of repair, truly making the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, James E. Burke, an unconventional repairman. Elizabeth Spelman also touched on the true nature of apologizers in her book, Repair, stating that “apology is more about the wrongdoer than it is about the wrong done and the person whom the wrong was done” (Spelman 96). He was unlike Spelman’s Willie, a common small town auto body mechanic who fixed cars in a makeshift manner. However, he embodies Willie and how he finds the best possible solution he can come to with the means he has available. and although he. And although he is not like Spelman’s Fred who intricately restores automobiles closely to their original mint conditions, he does aim to restore Tylenol brand’s former sterling reputation. Despite being the CEO of a reputable company, he did also not focus his life on preserving centuries old pieces of art like Louise, Elizabeth, and Irene, mentioned in Repair. Rather, he worked carefully to not further disrupt the company when making his fixes. Spelman used these characters to demonstrate the varying nature of the modern “repairman” while Burke embodied each of the roles when he set to attain the goal of not only bringing Johnson & Johnson back to their previous standards, but to make it more consumer conscious and better managed than ever before. While he was not an everyday fix it man, Burke was at the roots a combination of all five of the repairmen and women touched on in the early chapters of Spelman’s book. He especially shared a likeness to Fred and how he “is concerned as much about the authenticity of the restorative process as he is about the authenticity of the bike,” but in this case, as the bike is to Fred, the reputation of Tylenol is to Burke (Spelman 14). Burke transformed a state of chaos and disruption into a moment of triumph for the brand.

J&J CEO James E. Burke

By taking control of the crisis rather than letting it ruin them, Johnson & Johnson became the standard for crisis management. Similar to when a person takes responsibility for wronging someone and apologizing, Tylenol did not shirk their responsibility to the public by putting the consumers first and their brand second. Johnson & Johnson acted in a similar nature to an apologizer begging for forgiveness by making “ironclad pledges to do better in protecting their consumers in the future” (Markel) . Similar to when someone apologizes for a wrong they may have done, Tylenol had to determine how they would carefully handle such a delicate issue. Choosing to accept responsibility and express concern for the situation, Burke issued an apology stating, “Our first responsibility is to our customers” (Perfect Apology). By pairing this with their mass recall of possibly tampered with products, Johnson & Johnson went beyond a simplistic apology, even going as far to tell consumers,

Don’t risk it. Take the voucher so that when the crisis is over we can give you a product we both know is safe” (Perfect Apology).

Rather than simply throwing money at the problem, Johnson & Johnson did their talking first, and backed up their words with their wallets and actions, proving just how high in value this incident was to them. This notion of putting the customer first ended up paying off in the long run.

Today, Johnson & Johnson is still one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical producers and one can still find both various other successful Johnson & Johnson products in addition to Tylenol branded items. Although the situation was anything but standard, the way Johnson & Johnson rose above it to make amends to the community and promised to do better laid the groundwork for them to recover from their brief downfall and to increase sales once again only twelve short months following the debacle. Without the leadership of Burke, the Tylenol brand would not have executed one of the greatest comebacks in the history of pharmaceuticals. Serving as Johnson & Johnson’s unconventional repairman, the CEO proved that the best method of repair sometimes requires accepting and taking responsibility rather than waiting for the situation to resolve itself. Johnson & Johnson effectively brought justice to their customers by not taking the role of the victim, but rather the healing agent. By antiquating the “do nothing and hope for the best” approach, it became obvious that Johnson & Johnson was the company for others to take notes from when dealing with similar high risk situations.


First and foremost, I would like to thank my small GTA group, (Frank 1), which consists of Jillian, Chad, and Amelia who all helped me guide me during my preliminary drafts of this essay with assisting me in finding resources and angles to the approach the topic. In addition, I want to thank Julia, and Lauren, in addition to Amelia again who provided feedback in the final stages of editing. I would also like to thank my friend Anna who served as my technical editor for the first two drafts of this essay, and my roommate Megan who proofread the second two drafts. Next I especially would like to thank Professor Harris and GTA Frank for their willingness to help me develop this paper by reading several drafts over the past few weeks and providing helpful constructive feedback. I also want to thank my mom for reading over the paper and giving me constructive criticism to better my paper. I lastly want to thank Courtney from the writing center who read over my all but final draft helping me bring the paper to its final stage. Thank you again to all who I have previously mentioned and your support of me and this paper! Your help was greatly appreciated!

Works Cited

Markel, Howard. “How the Tylenol Murders of 1982 Changed the Way We Consume Medication.” PBS. PBS, 29 Sept. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.

Moore, Thomas. “The Fight to save Tylenol (Fortune, 1982).” Fortune. Fortune Magazine, 06 Oct. 2012. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.

Oct. 1, 1982: Tylenol Poisoning. ABC News. ABC News, 2 Feb. 10. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

“Our Credo | Johnson & Johnson.” Our Credo | Johnson & Johnson. Johnson & Johnson, 12 Sept. 2016. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

Rehak, Judith. “Tylenol Made a Hero of Johnson & Johnson : The Recall That Started Them All.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 Mar. 2002. Web. 11 Nov. 2016.

Spelman, Elizabeth V. Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World. Boston: Beacon, 2002. Print.

Stevenson, Richard W. “JOHNSON & JOHNSON’S RECOVERY.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 5 July 1986. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

Unknown. “The Apology | Business Case Studies.” The Apology | Business Case Studies. Perfect Apology, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

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