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Johnson & Johnson's Shameful Marketing Tactics

Author
Alicia Betz
May 27, 2020

Marketing can be an extremely powerful tool; show me a candy commercial, and I’m instantly convinced I need to make a run to the store. Of course, we don’t act on every craving that’s brought on by an ad, but over time, brands have an incredible power to convince us we need their products.

Sometimes, this influence is relatively harmless or even used for good: marketing safe sleep products to parents of newborns can save lives, for example. Often, however, there is only one ultimate goal of marketing and advertising: to make money. Some companies will stop at nothing to sell their products, even if they know that doing so is putting humans in harm’s way. Enter: Johnson & Johnson.

For decades, Johnson & Johnson engaged in these shameful marketing tactics, convincing women that they needed Baby Powder to smell clean and stay fresh. This seems harmless on the surface—a company trying to sell their product—but it’s what Johnson & Johnson knew about their product that makes this marketing deceitful. Read more about talcum powder lawsuit.

Evidence Mounts For Ovarian Cancer

At the same time that Johnson & Johnson was convincing women they needed Baby Powder, the evidence was mounting that Baby Powder, which is made of talcum powder, often contains asbestos and could potentially cause cancer. Asbestos is well known for causing mesothelioma, a cancer of the tissue that surrounds our internal organs. Today, over 40 years of evidence has proven that talcum powder, when used on or near the genitals, increases the risks of ovarian cancer.

On May 19, 2020 Johnson and Johnson announced that they will no longer be selling Baby Powder containing talc in North America. Rather than admitting the dangers of the product, however, the company claims that the discontinuation is due to decreasing sales. Johnson and Johnson currently faces over 16,000 Talcum related lawsuits.

In the 1970’s, pediatricians started advising parents not to use Baby Powder on their babies because of the risk of talc inhalation, but that didn’t stop Johnson & Johnson from marketing the product. Rather than put a warning label on their talcum powder or better yet discontinuing it, they simply shifted their focus and started marketing to a different demographic: adult women.

Johnson & Johnson played into and even helped to create the cultural expectations that women need to look, act, and smell a certain way. Their ads for Baby Powder and a similar product called Shower to Shower attempted to convince women that body odor is shameful and bad. For example, an ad for shower to shower said “just a sprinkle a day keeps odor away.”

These and other similar ads made thousands of women think that any vaginal odor was wrong, leading them to use the dangerous Baby Powder on their genitals. Johnson & Johnson used a simple yet effective tactic to sell this product: convince women they have a problem (their vagina smells and that’s bad), then convince them that their lives will be better when they take care of that problem (Johnson & Johnson’s talc products to the rescue!).

"From at least 1971 to the early 2000s, the company's raw talc and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos, and that company executives, mine managers, scientist, doctors and lawyers fretted over the problem and how to address it while failing to disclose it to regulators or the public"

Reuters Special Investigation 2018 "Powder Keg"

No Need To Feel Shame

This marketing led women to believe they should feel shameful about even the slightest hint of natural odor. As adults became the main targets of Johnson & Johnson’s advertising, the company began to narrow their marketing even more, often focusing on overweight, Hispanic, and African American women, particularly those living in the south.

Because African American and Hispanic women already used baby powder more than other populations, it was easier and cheaper for Johnson & Johnson to continue to target that audience. Additionally, targeting women who lived in the south tapped into a demographic that was more likely to sweat and notice their natural body odor.

They also often targeted teenage girls, a group that is especially susceptible to this fear-based marketing. Puberty is difficult and confusing enough without companies making girls think they should be ashamed of the changes taking place in their bodies. Once Johnson & Johnson convinced teenage girls to make Baby Powder a part of their daily hygiene routine, they had lifelong customers.

talcum powder

Many feminine hygiene products, including Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder can do more harm than good, and part of the ethical problem with the marketing of these products is that they are completely unnecessary, yet consumers are led to believe they are essential. The vagina is self cleaning, and barring special conditions or circumstances, the only thing women need to do to stay clean is regularly wash their external genital area with warm water. That’s it. If women choose to use soap, they should use a mild, fragrance free soap externally.

Thus, douches, talcum powder, and scented menstruation products are all unnecessary. Women are conditioned to think, partially through the marketing of these products, that if their vagina smells, something is wrong and they need a product to take care of it, when in reality, we all smell from time to time. It’s natural to expect a little more odor after a workout, when it’s hot outside, or during menstruation. By misleading women and making them believe that their natural odor is wrong, Johnson & Johnson profited from selling their unnecessary and harmful product.

This, again, is why Johnson & Johnson found great success specifically targeting women who live in the southern United States, where the weather is warm and people sweat more. In fact, thanks to their marketing, by the 2000’s, over 90% of Baby Powder use was by adults.

Johnson & Johnson's Shameful Marketing Tactics

There is no doubt that companies need to market their products to turn a profit and that they often target specific demographics to increase the success of their marketing campaigns. The problem with Johnson & Johnson’s marketing of Baby Powder is the deception. While Johnson & Johnson was convincing women they needed Baby Powder to stay fresh and clean, internal documents show that they knew—as far back as the 1970’s—that their talcum products were sometimes contaminated with asbestos and were likely unsafe.

Although Johnson & Johnson’s marketing tactics have been shameful and deceptive, there is nothing shameful about having fallen victim to them. In fact, if you used Baby Powder in the past and suffered harm because of it, you can join over 19,000 other women who did the same and are now fighting for justice. You can play a role in making Johnson & Johnson pay for continually targeting groups of women who were more likely to buy and use their harmful product.

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We are here to help you and loved ones advocate for justice. Feel free to send us any questions you might have, either about an injury or the process for pursuing justice so we can help you exercise your rights.

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