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An Overview of The 1982 Tylenol Cyanide Calamity

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The Tylenol Cyanide Crisis, 1982

In 1982, a horrible string of events happened that should have resulted in a total collapse of the Tylenol brand, owned by Johnson and Johnson. Early one morning, a young girl awoke with what appeared to be a cold. After being sent back to bed with a simple dose of Tylenol, she died an hour later on her bathroom floor. That same morning, a man with chest pained died a sudden death just an hour after taking a tylenol capsule. When the grieving wife took a dose as she tried to understand what had happened to her husband, she died within the same 48 hours. These deaths, as well as a few others, were due to an acute potassium cyanide poisoning, which was laced in the medication. The deaths were a terrible tragedy, but Tylenol managed to escape a respected brand, thanks to the wonderful PR moves the company made following the event.

First and foremost, recognize that this terrible incident took 7 lives, all from different bottles in one midwestern region. Still, recognizing that this string of poisonings would strike fear into the hearts of millions, Tylenol made a bold and costly move to retract 31 million bottles of the extra-strength medicine. This move alone cost the company 100 million dollars in production, as the medicine obviously went unused after the fact. Now, a large corporation can take a hit of 100 million dollars, but there are so many cases where they simply ignore the idea of taking such a loss. Ford, for example, back in the days of the Pinto, opted to keep their major malfunction a secret, to avoid the costs of recalling all of the sold vehicles. In the end, the lawsuits they paid for exploding gas tanks cost about as much as they would have paid for a recall. J&J learned a thing or two, apparently, and made the move to put security first. “Seven deaths in Chicago made for a 100 million dollar nationwide recall…” (PSU) Doesn’t that paint a caring image?

Of course, people were drastically concerned with the medication even after this recall. So, what move did Tylenol have to come up with to reinstill the same trust they had before? Well, think about how all medicine is distributed today. Or at least, nearly all of it. Did you guess tamper-proof containers? Because in Winter of 1982, Johnson and Johnson’s reintroduction of Tylenol added a tamper-proof lid to their bottles. To encourage an early influx of sales, they even distributed a massive amount of $2.50 dollar coupons for the medicine.

Now, assuming all of these steps would convince a customer to return to that brand, how else does the public absorb all this information? What’s the best way for them to keep up with such an infamous ordeal? Simply put, that responsibility lies in the media backlash. No matter how well you respond to a situation, how the media relays it makes a world of difference. Considering these moves put the company in significant debt, and they contracted several agencies to investigate the poisonings in Chicago, the media took the story very well. The subsequent portrayals of Tylenol’s brand were in a very positive and empathetic light, making it clear that this was a murderer’s plot, not a major error on the side of Johnson and Johnson. “Their socially responsible actions were met with great praise,” Pennsylvania State University reported, and it was recognized nationwide. For once in a long while, the company’s response almost did it more good than harm, because it chose to protect its customers before its own skin. Not to mention, they cooperated with the media themselves, not making any enemies or aggressively avoiding coverage of the panic-worthy issue.

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An Overview OF the 1982 Tylenol Cyanide Calamity. (2019, March 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 19, 2022, from
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