Why Toyota Is Not Tylenol: Victim, Villain or Vindicator?


The ongoing crisis at Toyota has been compared to the famous Tylenol crisis of 1982 in size, scope and impact on the overall brand. While there are a few valid comparisons, there are many more differences than similarities.

Sure it’s a major crisis and Toyota has issued a Tylenol-sized recall and sales stoppage, equivalent to pulling the Tylenol bottles off the supermarket and drug store shelves. Toyota also has a playbook of strategies and tactics that have evolved over two and half-decades of other corporate crises. 

But the comparison starts and stops with what I call the “Three V’s of Crises” and which V’s represent J&J and Tylenol vs. the single V that applies to Toyota. 

The Three V’s in Crises are the Victim, the Villain and the Vindicator. J&J was both a Victim and a Vindicator and never the Villain. Toyota—for now at least—is simply the Villain. Victims are those affected by the crisis. Villains tend to be those who cause the calamity. And Vindicators are those who help provide solace to the victims and help solve the problem.

In Tylenol’s case, Johnson & Johnson and its Tylenol brand were considered almost as much the victim as the people who were poisoned by the saboteurs. J&J was the victim of industrial sabotage, perpetrated by unknown individuals who have yet to be caught. Toyota is hardly the victim in the current crisis. Whatever the ultimate resolution—which might get them into the Vindicator category—the car manufacturer is by no means innocent in the pedal, floor mat and brakes issues.

There is a basic legal principle that divides J&J and Toyota: contributory negligence. No one is alleging that Toyota deliberately set out to make a defective product. Yet something went wrong in the design, manufacturing and/or quality control process that has contributed to systems and parts breaking down. This contributory negligence puts the carmaker solidly in the Villain camp. 

Villains come in all sizes and shapes. Compared to Toyota, the Peanut Corporation of America is probably a much more total Villain with its lax controls in processing of food substances that killed people. Toyota has previously been a good guy with a very strong reputation. But as of now, they are the Villains.

As for Vindicators, right now there’s a bevy of them, including reporters, bloggers, legislators, regulators and rapidly appearing class action lawyers. Victims and Vindicators tend to collaborate to call attention to the problems and sometimes on the solutions. 

There are a number of other differences between Tylenol and Toyota. Getting the most attention is the difference between J&J CEO James Burke and Toyota’s Akio Toyoda and the U.S. company president Jim Lentz. Burke came across with three big C’s: calm, compassionate and credible. Lentz, in his first appearance on The Today Show and now on the Toyota Web site, is serviceable but no Burke. Toyoda, an heir to the legendary family, doesn’t play well in North America.  

Of course there are enormous differences in the ability to control the message and media.  The world of 1982 didn’t have the Internet, bloggers and tweeters that take a crisis viral in less than five minutes. J&J was able to hold press conferences and make announcements under timelines that are tortoise-like in 2010. The world of “www” also benefits Toyota, since it can use Toyota.com and other sites for rapid and thorough information posting to dealers, consumers and other stakeholders.

In all probability, a company as strong and responsible as Toyota will figure out the fixes. They will probably move out of the Villain category. They may not leapfrog into the Vindicator category, but over time it is possible to restore consumer confidence and reputation. 

It’s tempting to compare the big crises to the ones before. Toyota is no Tylenol. If they’re good and lucky, they will become their own positive case study on how to recover from a damaging reputation event.

Andrew Gilman is CEO of crisis and reputation management firm CommCore Consulting Group. He counseled J&J during the Tylenol crisis in 1982, preparing CEO James Burke for the famous “60 Minutes” interview. He can be reached at agilman@commcoreconsulting.com.




6 Comments

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  • Catherine M

    excellent analysis!

  • jeff opperman

    Or put another way, every story has a good guy, bad guy, conflict and resolution. J&J was the good guy who worked to successfully resolve the conflict. Toyota is trying to resolve the conflict from its position as the bad guy. How Toyota resolves the conflict (and how fast) will determine its future in the marketplace.

    jeff opperman
    Director, Corporate Communications, LexisNexis

  • Philly Doc

    This is another case of a consultant trying to shoehorn a complex set of issues into a cute slogan (the 3 V’s in this case). Toyota is not a “villain” so far as we know. Such a term should be reserved for those who purposely plan to hurt or criminally deceive.

  • steve lundin

    Andrew: Given your experience it’s easy to understand why you wanted to craft an argument around an alliterated headline. However – this Toyota case seems more in line with Corvair than Tylenol. Doesn’t rhyme as well – but seems to have much more in common. There’s even a smoking car involved!

  • Paula Lovell

    Excellent point about the communications challenges (and opportunities) of today versus 1982. However, there is no excuse for the delay in initiating recalls for misc. other problems when they knew about them for up to eight years. I blogged about this a few weeks ago at: http://www.lovell.com/blog/?p=887
    They certainly have their work cut out for them.

  • Moamer Qazafi

    Nice analysis from a public consumer perspective. Although the situation w/ Toyota can be compared to the problems in fuel vessel safety w/ Mustangs and Pintos. They are being crucified here because they succeeded when the GM, C and F failed. If you look at the hidden and published recalls of the big 3 you will note they are guilty of similar crimes. When the analyst does the calc it is value of x lawsuits vs. y recalls. If the payout to the potential suits is less than the cost of the recall, there is NO recall.
    Moamer Qazafi
    Director of Marketing and Public Relations