In 1982, Johnson & Johnson experienced a terrible strike at the safety of its products and the credibility of its corporation when a crazed killer, still unknown today, tampered with bottles of Tylenol. The killer opened bottles on the shelves of stores, inserted poison into the contents, and re-sealed the bottles for the unsuspecting consumer. J & J responded with alacrity in what has become a model of corporate communication following a deadly problem.
Flash forward 28 years with J & J experiencing another threat to product safety and corporate responsibility. Several product lines including Benadryl, Motrin, Rolaids, Simply Sleep, St. Joseph Aspirin and Tylenol were recalled after J & J received consumer complaints that these products had a moldy smell to them.
The FDA isn’t happy and has publicly criticized J & J for its bad corporate behavior today.
Deborah M. Autor, the director of the Office of Compliance at the F.D.A.’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said on a conference call with journalists on Friday that the company should have acted faster.
“When something smells bad literally or figuratively,” Ms. Autor said, “companies must aggressively investigate and take all necessary actions to solve the problem.”
In understanding this piece of practical persuasion, please recall the Rule:
All Persuasion Is Local.
You need to understand all the major elements at play in each particular persuasion context. Consider the differences between the same corporation, the same Federal agency, but across two different time periods and two different threats.
In 1982 a Republican administration and Congress were aggressively rolling back the welfare state and pursuing actions consistent with the belief that “government isn’t the solution; government is the problem.” Further, recall that in 1982 an unknown killer (or killers) were deliberately putting poison into containers on local store shelves and that several people had died mysteriously.
In 2010 a Democratic administration and Congress are trying to make government a more active player against corporate behavior, particularly with health and safety. The FDA is much more aggressive in its oversight, criticism, and regulation of industry. Here we have products that smell bad, have to date (nearly 20 months after the first complaint) not killed anyone, and have produced “temporary digestive problems” in a handful of consumers.
I do not think that J & J behaved badly on this. I think the FDA is considerably more active with this administration and will continue to do so in the future on the most silly infraction, violation, or misstatement from anyone in the FDA crosshairs. The agency has provided a significant public rebuke to a company that began a voluntary recall of products that simply smelled bad, but had no evidence that anyone was killed or hospitalized from them.
I see several persuasion implications from this particular FDA action.
1. The FDA is a foolish school marm who is overpolicing with its huge rulebook, smacking inattentive pupils with a pencil across the knuckles. Everyone of us knows that teachers with many rules spend more time as the monitor and less time as the teacher. More rules do not make you a better enforcer, they make you a busier enforcer. Also, students don’t learn any better. And, they learn to pull the teacher’s chain. The FDA may think that they’re the New Sheriff in town, but they are going to become the Village Fool someday soon.
2. If the FDA patrols my beat, I would actively break as many of their “little” rules as possible. They clearly like to go public with their spankings, so make them overpunish piddling infractions. This will reduce their capacity and effectiveness with the added attraction of spotlighting their Sadistic Marm behavior.
3. A larger issue looms. Sure, this is just the FDA with one group of zealot administrators taking names and kicking ass with the corporate and Pharma jerks, but it is one of the less attractive faces of an activist government making the world a better place. Yeah. We changed cereal labeling! We spanked those J & J frauds for smelly bottles! Tomorrow we’re erasing the Food Pyramid and replacing it with the Healthy Heptagon! This is bad medicine for Obama. Worse still, this does not polarize people into Republicans versus Democrats, but citizens versus government. In a democracy, you never want to be on the wrong side of that controversy. George W. Bush antagonized Code Pink and the Huffington Post. Barack Obama antagonizes corporations and citizens.
4. If I’m that slave riding in the chariot next to the conquering FDA administrator, I’m not whispering, “All glory is fleeting,” but I’m waiting silently for a new driver. The FDA leadership apparently falls into the ancient narrative of the Greek family drama. You are going to kill what you love or what you love is going to kill you.
This would be funny if it was a Seinfeld plot, but this is government in action.
Finally, All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.