Johnson & Johnson shifted its Baby Powder marketing strategy towards African American women more than a decade ago, even as a prominent international body warned of a possible link between cosmetic talc products and ovarian cancer.
In 2006, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer declared talc-based powders “possibly carcinogenic” when applied to the female genitals. According to Reuters, talc supplier Luzenac America Inc. began including that information on shipments to Johnson & Johnson and other customers shortly after.
Yet rather than pass the warning on to consumers, Johnson & Johnson executives were looking for a way to reverse declining talcum powder sales. They ultimately decided overweight African American women were a perfect target for a new Baby Powder marketing strategy.
“Powder is still considered a relevant product among AA consumers,” a 2006 marketing presentation declared. “This could be an opportunity.”
By the following year, the company was distributing Baby Powder samples at churches and beauty salons in African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods. Johnson & Johnson also ran digital and print promotions with Weight Watchers and launched a $300,000 radio advertising campaign in a half-dozen markets aiming to reach “curvy Southern women 18-49 skewing African American.”
Today, the company faces more than 13,000 talcum powder lawsuits that allege Baby Powder and Shower-to-Shower caused cancer. A significant percentage of these plaintiffs are older African American and/or overweight women with ovarian cancer who regularly used the company’s talc-based powders for daily feminine hygiene, often for decades.
“Every time I took a shower, I put Baby Powder on,” Krystal Kim, 53, told Reuters. “I put it on my panties, on my clothes, everywhere.”
Kim was among 22 ovarian cancer plaintiffs awarded $4.69 million by a Missouri jury last August.
A total of 20 Johnson & Johnson talcum powder lawsuits have gone to trial since February 2013. Although ovarian cancer plaintiffs have won four of eight cases, Johnson & Johnson successfully appealed three earlier verdicts.
The remaining 12 trials involved allegations that asbestos-tainted talcum powder caused mesothelioma. Johnson & Johnson has prevailed in four of those case, while plaintiff awards in four others totaled $172 million. The remaining trials ended with hung juries.
Johnson & Johnson has also settled four mesothelioma lawsuits since last December, either midtrial or just before trials were about to begin.
As ovarian cancer lawsuits began going to trial in 2015, Johnson & Johnson decided to rethink its Baby Powder marketing strategy. A presentation that year didn’t even mention minorities, and instead proposed Johnson & Johnson “target adults, with a focus on men.”
Meanwhile, plaintiffs and their advocates have only become more vocal in criticizing Johnson & Johnson’s targeted marketing campaigns.
“Lots of products target African-Americans. That’s marketing 101: Go where our customers are,” Janice Mathis, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women, told Reuters. “What has me disturbed about this is that you didn’t give any caveat to the customers, once you knew there was a possibility there was some danger.”