For months now, consumer-products companies have warily watched the growing travails of Johnson & Johnson, a once unimpeachable corporation that’s now in legal hot water over, of all things, talc.
At issue is the allegation that Johnson’s Baby Powder, a trusted brand since 1894, contained asbestos. Last year, a jury in Missouri ordered J&J to fork over $4.7 billion to the families of 22 women who claimed to have contracted ovarian cancer from the product. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice commenced an inquiry into whether the company knew about cancer risks but said nothing. And today, J&J is scheduled to have a hearing in which it will argue that some 11,000 of the 14,000 cases pending against it should be dismissed.
While the final outcome remains to be seen, the shock of it is still fresh. For consumers, it also raises a chilling question: If a product that’s a household name could turn out to be dangerous, can shoppers fully trust anything that’s for sale on store shelves?
The answer: Not always.
Anxieties like these are nothing new. Indeed, history is rife with examples of products made by dependable companies that turned out to be harmful—even deadly.
Thanks to short attention spans and the constant churn of the news cycle, consumers eventually forget about such cases. But there are plenty of them, and they remain instructive. Below is a list of some of the most egregious examples of trusted brands that made products that turned out to be dangerous. In most cases, these companies knew of the defects and failed to correct them. In most cases, they also survived the blizzard of bad publicity—recalling the products, settling the lawsuits and moving on. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that successful companies, for all their carefully cultivated trust and feel-good marketing, don’t always do the right thing by the customers who keep them in business.
The Ford Pinto (1981)
In 1970, Ford introduced the Pinto, an inexpensive subcompact hatchback designed to counter a growing crop of foreign imports. Two years later, a Pinto driven by a woman named Lilly Gray was rear-ended on a California highway and exploded in a fireball, killing Gray. Company documents revealed in the subsequent lawsuit show that Ford officials not only knew the Pinto’s gas tank was prone to rupturing, but that it had performed a cost-benefit analysis and concluded that settling the likely fatality cases was cheaper than correcting the defects. Ford’s then president Lee Iacocca made the now notorious observation that “safety doesn’t sell.” Soon, neither did the Pinto. In 1978, under pressure from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Ford recalled 1.5 million of the ill-fated hatchbacks. As for Iacocca, he later became famous as the executive who rescued Chrysler in the 1980s and was nearly drafted into a run for the White House.
Rely tampons (1982)
Cotton tampons have been a trusted part of women’s hygiene regimens for decades, but the shift to synthetic materials—hailed as a technological breakthrough in the 1960s—yielded tragic results when it came to a Procter & Gamble’s Rely, which hit store shelves in 1978. By 1980, every last box had been pulled following revelations that Rely’s carboxymethyl cellulose foam promoted bacterial growth that could lead to toxic shock syndrome. In 1982, a federal jury found P&G negligent for failing to adequately test the product. The company disputed the link between its product and the illness but set aside $75 million to cover the costs of litigation. Though Rely was never seen again, P&G is still very much with us. Its net sales last year rang in at $66.8 billion.