Friday, April 30, 2010

Beware of New Listerine Claims and Products

For over 17 years I have used Listerine mouthwash continuously on the recommendation of my periodontist, after getting religion on dental care. Its current maker and distributor Johnson & Johnson (J&J) bought the brand from Pfizer in 2006.

I had thought highly of J&J after reading a business case of the way it had handled a major crisis. It had launched a massive campaign, recalled 31 million bottles and reassured its customers following the 1982 Tylenol poisoning murders. That was 28 years ago.

Now it's very different. J&J seems (like Pfizer) to be all too willing to engage in deceptive marketing and mislead customers so long as it doesn't technically violate the law. Take Listerine.

Advanced Listerine was introduced in 2005 amidst much hype as an improvement over regular Listerine, with "the same germ killing power", "plus it controls tartar for cleaner, brighter teeth." It cost almost twice as much as regular Listerine. After switching to Advanced Listerine I one day happened to compare its back label with that of (regular) Cool Mint Listerine. To my amazement they both had exactly the same four active ingredients, in exactly the same proportion.

This way Listerine managed to make customers overpay for essentially the same product (except for the flavoring) with its misleading claims. I figure consumers eventually caught on, and the Advanced Listerine has quietly retreated from store shelves, but not before making millions in this rip-off.

Now here's the latest. Two months back I saw that the regular Listerine had been replaced in our local Costco store shelves by Listerine Total Care Anticavity Mouthwash. It was a different color (purple) and cost 25% more. The package had bold claims about protecting teeth and promoting dental health in six ways and gave the impression that this new product was all of the regular mouthwash and more.

I bought this and (wary from the previous experience) compared the label with that of the regular Listerine. Imagine my surprise when I found that its only active ingredient was sodium flouride, the same stuff you found in virtually all toothpastes sold in the stores. Since the fluoride in the toothpaste is sufficient for most users, the new Listerine is essentially useless for most folks, except for its alcohol content (same as in the regular variety) that kills germs.

So I returned the new Listerine and (at the urging of the nice Costco customer service folks) sent my feedback to Costco management. Many others must have done the same, because now the regular Listerine is back on the shelves, and I'm sticking with it. That's a product that I'd recommend any day, but beware of more marketing tricks and deceptions by these companies.