January 4, 2019
Johnson & Johnson May Have Science on Their Side, but Will That Matter?
Through much of 2018, the venerable American retail brand Johnson & Johnson was on a tear. Stocks were up nearly 25 percent through mid-December, when a story came out that sent the stock price tumbling, down 9 percent year-to-date, and set Johnson & Johnson up for a major PR crisis.
The troubling story came from Reuters, alleging that the company knew that its signature product, talcum powder, “contained small amounts of asbestos…” Worse, according to the story, Johnson & Johnson “knew this for years” but failed to disclose their findings.
One of the reasons this story landed so hard is that Johnson & Johnson has spent many years defending its brand against lawsuits claiming the powder causes ovarian cancer. In most cases, the company won the suits, mainly because the plaintiffs in the cases did not have science on their side. The evidence directly connecting Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder with cancer is thin, at best.
Further supplementing Johnson & Johnson’s side of the argument, there was a large-scale epidemiological study that failed to show that women who used talcum powder tended to have higher incidences of ovarian cancer than those who did not use the product. That evidence has proven so important to juries that Johnson & Johnson has won 35 out of 40 such cases.
But that changed when a Texas-based attorney, Mark Lanier, discovered documents that, he says, reveal Johnson & Johnson knew there was asbestos in its products, and that the company did nothing to warn women. In the case in which Lanier presented this information, a jury took only eight hours to award his clients $4.7 billion, most of which was punitive.
Where does that leave one of the most ubiquitous American consumer brands? Well, at least for now, they still have science on their side. Sure, the asbestos revelation was shocking, but it hasn’t been proven, and no link has been found between the talc and ovarian cancer. That’s a big hurdle, legally.
But it may not be such a big hurdle in the court of public opinion. Even if Johnson & Johnson manages to continue its impressive string of court victories related to this issue, the company still has to deal with consumers who are, at the moment, very much gun-shy about buying one of the company’s signature products.
We can’t say, yet, what direction Johnson & Johnson should go with their messaging at the moment. They could go with “science is on our side,” but that could be taken as not satisfactorily contrite or empathetic. So, whatever narrative they choose, the company should exercise precise care. And if it’s later proven that their product is dangerous, and that they knew about it… the PR crisis factor will escalate quickly.