Tylenol and going Cheney with package copy

While we have succeeded in making package structures safer, we are running the risk of making package communication less so.

In 1982, seven people died from poisoned Tylenol capsules. The package design industry, and Johnson & Johnson, who took this tragedy very seriously, had a very proactive and appropriate response. They made packages safer by introducing tamper evident features, and darn quickly.

No single event has had as much impact on the product structures that we now take for granted, or the product safety that has been gained. But product structure is not all that has been influenced by this incident. In the last 28 years we have also seen a dramatic increase in the amount of legally required copy on packaging  .  .  .  all in the interest of public safety.

Unfortunately, as the image above demonstrates, many consumer product companies are now “going Cheney” with promotional and marketing copy as well. Creating packages, especially in Tylenol’s OTC drug category, with a visual overload of competing and confusing claims, warnings, benefits statements, dosage levels, etc. This is leading to consumer confusion between genuine facts, necessary to judge a product’s appropriateness and safety, and optional marketing and/or promotional claims made by marketers.

This should concern all designers and clients who care about product safety.

Ron Susskind wrote a book in 2006 called “The One Percent Doctrine”. The title comes from Dick Cheney’s assessment of how we should fight the war on terror after 9/11. He is quoted as saying “If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping Al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.”

I won’t get into politics here, but in package design, this planning for a low probability event such as product tampering, is a legitimate design criterion for product structure or the inclusion of legal copy.

But unfortunately this “1% solution” approach has also begun to drive the way marketers present optional promotional copy as well. Many seem to be saying that if there is even a 1% chance that a consumer is going to miss a piece of information, we must include it. And make it bigger, or in a bright color, or in a flag.

Product safety is suffering when consumers are confused, and this confusion is increasing in some categories. According to the American Society for Quality, The Food & Drug Administration currently rejects more than a third of proposed names for new drugs because they’re too similar to old ones. Shouldn’t there be some standard for confusing OTC package copy?

We as designers need to be more proactive in helping clients understand the difference between communicating the required messages that support consumer safety, and the optional messages they would like to communicate about product attributes.

Associated Press, September 3, 2008
ASQ Quality News Today, Sept. 10, 2008


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
This entry was posted in Beauty & Personal Care, Design Criticism, Design Practice and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Tylenol and going Cheney with package copy

  1. Good post. And so true.

    Which is probably why the FDA is now looking into how consumers respond to labels.

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