Johnson & Johnson wants to turn Girl Scout troops into 'drug dealers' —but it's all for a good cause.
The drug giant said it will launch a promotion this month, in which churches, charities and nonprofit groups—such as the Girl Scouts—will be encouraged to sell J&J's painkillers and cough medicine to their friends and neighbors. For every purchase of a J&J brand, including Tylenol, Sudafed, BenGay and Motrin, J&J will donate 8% of the sale to the community group.
It includes all the OTC brands that New Brunswick, N.J.-based J&J acquired from Pfizer in December, such as Benadryl and Listerine.
Here's how it works: The volunteer persuades a neighbor to buy their regular over-the-counter medicine from J&J as part of the fund-raiser. The consumer then goes to Ucareorg.com to punch in the code for their specific fundraising group. After that, any product they buy will benefit the community group. (Info is at Ucare's Web site.)
'We're always looking for new, creative, breakthrough ways of getting to our consumer base,' said Eric Bruno, vp-marketing at McNeil Consumer Healthcare, Fort Washington, Pa., the unit that handles J&J's nonprescription drug brands. 'This program does specifically highlight an increasing trend of wanting to more proactively engage consumers to participate with our brands, versus our brands just speaking to consumers.'
The story got some play on local television stations, e.g., here, and on the PharmaGossip blog. The reaction by Johnson & Johnson was striking, as recounted by Jim Edwards on the BrandweekNRX blog.
To my surprise, McNeil was furious, and I got an earful from one of their PR people about a day after it came out. 'We're not trying to turn Girl Scouts into drug dealers,' they fumed. 'We demand a correction.'
After some back and forth Brandweek declined to run a correction on the ground that the matter was more about tone than fact. No one really thinks J&J/McNeil is trying to get girl scouts to deal drugs. It was a journalistic turn of phrase. And besides, despite that one line the entire rest of the story was told straight.
We offered to publish a letter to the editor from McNeil, but they declined.I figured the matter would end there ... but then Pharmagossip produced an item (which has since moved off his frontpage so I can't reproduce it here for you but Jack Friday kindly provided the link in a comment below) ... and then Tampa Bay News 10 did this item ... and (9 News Now in Virginia did this (including that fancy logo at the top)...
Which explains why McNeil was so pissed at me.
For the record: J&J is not literally trying to turn literal girl scouts into literal drug dealers. The program, which does involve the distribution of pharmaceuticals, is open to any charitable group, including the girl scouts, who want to participate. I only wrote that "girl scout" line because the girl scouts and their cookies are the most famous nonprofit group who sell things to raise money.
Guys, you can put your website back up now.
I thought it was telling just how strongly the company reacted. But the flap over the turn of phrase used on Brandweek seems to have distracted from the very serious questions raised by the original article.
The pharmaceutical company was trying to involve not-for-profit organizations in their marketing. It would try to induce people volunteering for these organizations to get others "to buy their regular over-the-counter medicine from J&J as part of the fund-raiser." Thus, it would tie J&J to the reputation of the not-for-profits who sign up, and would benefit from sympathy towards the volunteers who go door to door.
Thus, it appears to be another way for a pharmaceutical company to turn people and organizations with exemplary reputations into part-time pharmaceutical marketers, perhaps without making it clear how this benefits the pharmaceutical company as well the not-for-profits. This appears to be a new variant on stealth marketing.
Certainly the idea was not to turn Girl Scouts into "drug dealers" in the colloquial sense. But would it be good for the Girls Scouts, or similar organizations to turn their volunteers and members into drug marketers? And would it be good for society?