Target's Generic Meds Are Maybe Too Generic

We’re big fans of Target’s smart approach to package design for medicine. They may want to give a little more thought to their OTC generics, however—how about using more distinct labeling for the children’s line, for example? One reader explains why this would be a lot safer.

I’m all in favor of buying generic over the counter medications; however, this morning when my child was sick, I went for the acetaminophen, and almost ended up giving him allergy medication.

Is it just me, or should Target make the bottles just a bit different, as to not confuse those of us who wake at 4am to a crying toddler?

(Thanks to Circadian Swing!)


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  1. Brain.wav says:

    It really isn’t any worse than having two similarly-sized prescription bottles in a cabinet.

    • NinjaMarion says:

      @brainwav: Exactly. This woman must have a real bitch of a time when she’s got more than one prescription in the house. They’re different colors, if only slightly, and the medication is clearly listed on the label, which is easy to differentiate with anything more than the quickest of glances. When she bought the medication, she should have noticed that the labels are similar and maybe they should be kept separate or that more care should be paid when using them.

      There’s only so many colors Target can use, and oftentimes, they color them similarly to the brand name medicine so that you can better identify what they are. The generic for Zantac has a blue label to match Zantac’s use of blue, the generic for Excedrin is a green bottle and label, and the generic Centrum has an orange label… uhh… I guess just because. Hey, I only said they match them often.

      Yeah, Target could possibly improve the labeling to make them more different, but then what happens if the new label is too similar to something wildly different (again, only so many colors to choose from, and at least a mixup of a children’s dose of allergy medicine and pain reliever isn’t super likely to cause major problems) and causes the child great harm upon the mistake?

      In the end, the responsibility falls entirely upon the parent to check, double-check, and then re-check five more times if necessary every single medication they give to their child to ensure their child’s safety.

  2. SkokieGuy says:

    Look at the bottle on the right. The flavor is easier to read than the words: children’s allergy medication.

    I would imaging that keeping the bottles and labels the same size helps keeps costs down, but the size and clarity of the text should favor the important stuff first, like the name of the medication, any warnings, etc.

    Some label redesign is in order.

    • Rectilinear Propagation says:

      …the size and clarity of the text should favor the important stuff first, like the name of the medication, any warnings, etc.
      @SkokieGuy: Word.

      I went for the acetaminophen, and almost ended up giving him allergy medication.

      Emphasis added since despite all of the “I can read” comments most people seem to have missed that part.

      I can’t believe that a suggestion that medicine bottles be easier to read is being panned here.

    • mmmsoap says:

      @SkokieGuy: Unfortunately I can’t find my sources, but it’s my understanding that white-on-color text is significantly harder to read than black-on-white or color-on-white, which just makes the problem worse. Target is kind of going overboard with the red-ink here.

    • LostAngeles says:

      @SkokieGuy: Not only that, I’m pretty sure Fake Cherry Flavor smells different than Fake Bubblegum Flavor. They’re both cloying and evil, but there is a difference.

  3. OK people. Before we blame the OP or Target, I think we can all agree on something. Before you put anything in your body, you should inspect it. This is especially true of medicines. If it’s a prescription, make sure the pill matches the description on the bottle and that the listed use for the drug applies to you. You only have to do this once. If you are giving your children meds, check the bottles. There is a tiny warning about not giving aspirin to a child who has chicken pox. Check to make sure there are no “Don’ts” on the bottle that may apply to you. I think if we all follow these rules, we will all lead a healthy, happy, and safe life.

    That being said, yes this could be confusing, but the labels are not entirely similar. Either way, always check the labels.

    • cpt.snerd says:

      @Git Em SteveDave loves this guy–>: I wholeheartedly agree with that. The deeper meaning as the OP silently said is that he read them carefully. It’s great that he pointed it out though – as for every careful reader there are many more careless readers.

      Target SHOULD change up how they label this – a simple color/background redesign of the actual USE of the medicine should be simple and may be actually beneficial. People might see the use more clearly and remember it the next time they need it. (I don’t think people say “ooo, i think i’ll get that cherry favored medicine!”)

    • ThickSkinned says:

      @Git Em SteveDave loves this guy–>: Thank you for stating this. You did a much better job than I would have. I would end up getting banned yet again for pointing out the lack of common sense involved and how parents not able to take the time to discern exactly what they are putting into their children deserve to feel the guilt and remorse of poisoning a member of their family. Kind of like that kid playing on the escalator…

    • carbonmade says:

      @Git Em SteveDave loves this guy–>: Just to add to that, Asprin shouldn’t be given to children under 18 AT ALL because of Reye’s Syndrome.

    • Thassodar says:


    • Red_Eye says:

      @Git Em SteveDave loves this guy–>: Amen.

      Keep in mind your child doesnt come with a label, however it should have come with a parent and that parent should be capable of adequate care.

      Besides before you give you kid meds dont you check the expire date?

      @freepistol: You tip works. To clearly differentiate we have bottles marked T and M for Tylenol/acetaminophen and M for Motrin/ibuprofen.

  4. melmoitzen says:

    I’m in full agreement–we should make medications different colors for those who can’t be bothered to read the labels before pumping them into their children.

  5. TeeDub says:

    When my toddler cries, I prefer scotch. I find that no matter which bottle I grab, that either way, in just a few minutes I have drank enough that my wife has done something to solve the problem.

  6. Ajh says:

    With something like that I’d write on one of the bottles in marker to help with quick identification. My allergy and narcolepsy medications are the same size perscription bottles but my narcolepsy med has a large black line under the instructions on the label and on the lid.

  7. TeeDub says:

    Oh and as a solution to the OP, if you can’t be bothered to read the labels, I would suggest putting the medications in different places. This would solve the problem of grabbing the wrong bottle in your hurry to dope up your child.

  8. warf0x0r says:

    Their generic hemeroid medication is also bubblegum flavored and in a clear bottle, putting the three next to each other would cause the world to end!


    • Ecks says:

      Bubble Gum flavour should be pink, then it would look different from the red Cherry flavour. @warf0x0r: Hemroid could be a different flavour, like Grape and be purple. Mmm grape.

  9. Norislolz says:

    Seems fine to me. I can read.

  10. Odd that they’d do that since their prescription bottles are innovative and offer different colours for each family member’s prescription.

    • MeOhMy says:

      @Serenefengshui: I was thinking the same thing! The “ClearRx” that Target adopted for prescription pills a few years ago are one of the first great design success stories of the 21st century. They have specific features to help differentiate between two different medications. In particular, the name of the medication is in boldface and at the top of the label so that it jumps out to your eye.

      Sure, you the user have to be careful but it would be nice if the manufacturer gave some better visual cues and had a clear label. It’s particularly ironic given Target’s use of that new-fangled pill bottle.

  11. thatguyjr says:

    I’d recommend organizing the medicine cabinet if you think this could be a problem. Simply put pain killers on a shelf or area, from weakest to strongest, or by brand, then move on to the med that treats the next symptom. Arrange your medicine cabinet somewhat similar to a drugstore, and you’ll have less trouble finding things. Regardless, I would think that the reader would have needed to look closely enough at the bottle to see the recommended dosage, so he should have been able to tell by the active ingredient, as well, which should be close to the serving size.

    Regardless, there’s enough of a difference on the label that anyone who is responsible about their medicines shouldn’t have a problem. If it’s four in the morning, and you’re taking some medicine, then it should be an important enough issue that you take your time out enough to read what’s going on. If you can’t see the difference between the labels, perhaps you shouldn’t be measuring out small portions of medicines at the time, either, especially for the use of a child. You wouldn’t want them to overdose!

  12. bluejasn says:

    Wow they obviously put no thought into the design

  13. WEGGLES90 says:

    Read the label for crying out loud. Not “Blaming the victim” but this is medicine. Sure it’s 4am, and the child is crying, but it’s not as though you’re in a life or death situation and can’t spend 10 seconds to make sure you have the right stuff.

  14. Framling says:

    Since there are solutions the consumer can implement, obviously there is no point in the producer doing anything about the problem at all, regardless of how simple a change may be for them to implement. The problem shouldn’t even brought up; anyone who does so is clearly an unfathomably terrible parent.

  15. twritersf says:

    This is one of the fundamental concepts of interface design, in this case, the interface of the label. A suggestion to “just read the label” fundamentally ignores the users of the product, including the environment and situation they are likely to be in. They may not have the time or ability to fully read, or might not be in an environmental or emotional state to adequately differentiate. Good design makes the differentiation clear under most, if not all, situations, and with medications–especially children’s medications, ensuring that differentiation is built in to the design might literally be the difference between life and death.

  16. Mr. Guy says:

    people should read labels.
    target should make it’s labels more distinctive.

    both sides are right.

  17. bhaelochon says:

    If I’m up with a crying toddler at 4:00 AM, giving him Bendadryl when I meant to give him Tylenol is fine by me. Either way, he’ll go back to sleep.

  18. LoriLynn says:

    **or woman, sorry!

  19. Jamezspot says:

    What would prevent one from actually reading the bottle?

  20. vladthepaler says:

    Agreed, there should be more differentiation between the labels.

  21. Mr_Human says:

    I think we’re used to seeing prescriptions such as pills in look-alike, generic containers with printer labels stickered on, while bottles of liquid cold medicines and such tend to be more vigorously branded. Thus we might confidently grab for the latter without reading the label, while we’d never do that with a pill bottle.

  22. BeeBoo says:

    I am shocked by this, especially in light of Target’s brilliantly-designed, award-winning prescription pill bottles.


    The similarity between the packaging of different products is a big cause of medication errors in hospitals. (Think IV potassium in different concentrations in almost-identical vials.) Target needs to do something about this.

    • Fist-o™ says:

      @BeeBoo: MAN THAT IS AWESOME!! Why have those bottles not taken off??

      Regarding the Target generics: This situation is an example of “Multiple points of failure”. The really BIG mistakes (Planes crashing, the Iraq war, this rash in my nether regions) happen because more than one person or thing failed.

      In this case Target failed to differentiate between the products adequately, and the consumer (Being up at 4am and groggy with a sick kid– NOT FUN), was tired and distracted.

      I place the blame on Target. =)

  23. simplekismet says:


    The Institute for Safe Medication Practices is a good place to go with this. You can report what happened as a potential error. The ISMP harrasses the crap out of the FDA and drug manufacturers to make labels safer to avoid this very problem.

    Yes we should read labels but let’s face it – medication errors happen in pharmacies and hospitals daily because trained and licensed professionals can’t bother to read the entire label… I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect lay-people to be better. Target should change the colors on the label as well as use clearer print.

    Target has led the way in changing prescription bottle labeling (with their funky bottles and large type), so it’s a little odd that their prepackaged drugs aren’t being held to the same high standards.

  24. jrubow says:

    I could see using colors that are more distinctive to help identify medications, but I also believe that you should always double check a medicine before giving it to anyone.

  25. glycolized says:

    Oh I got it. So how about a cartoon, anthropomorphic running nose standing in a pool of green goo for the allergy med, and a bubble-gum pink, crying care bear with a compound arm fracture for the pain med.

  26. ZoeSchizzel says:

    DH and I always had a saying regarding our children and cold medication…”When in doubt, knock them out.” If they are miserable, you want them to sleep through the worst of the symptoms, therefore, the bottle on the right (allergy medication) is your friend. Before you call CPS, our kids are grown and in college, and although they have a odd fondness for cherry flavored cocktails, we’ve seen no ill effects.

  27. yasth says:

    Why in the world are people complaining about this? I mean no one is saying boycott Target, or even really blaming them.

    It is a free product development suggestion. Do you people stand by the suggestion box at places to mock people who suggest that they have purex pumps in the eating areas of fast food joints (why they don’t is kind of a mystery, I mean my mom made me wash my hands before eating things that weren’t even finger food).

  28. Etoiles says:

    Everyone should really lay off the OP. S/he said “almost,” and makes a valid point about 4 a.m.: when I wake up at 6:00 a.m., I am so stupid that I misread the clock and fall off of the Wii balance board.

    It would probably help if the curve were reversed, or the label were green instead of pink. Those are pretty minor changes that would help a lot of people.

  29. I see both sides, but honestly, it’s not the manufacturer’s responsibility to protect you from yourself. Nor should it be. I understand the impulse to make everything easier, but at the same time, how much more can we dumb things down? Yes 4am is early, but still, take the time to confirm that everything’s as it should be before committing. Good advice for workplace emails, too.

  30. Scudder says:

    Honestly, folks; when you reach for medication for yourself, don’t you secure the correct product to treat that illness?

    While the bottles are similar in appearance, they are clearly labeled. I really cannot see how having different colours of fluid or packaging would benefit the consumer if there were not a standardized program for all manufacturers. If two companies made red allergy medication and another green, a customer could claim confusion by saying she always thought allergy medicine was green. We as consumers have to take some commonplace responsibilities for ourselves.

  31. opsomath says:

    I think the OP has a good, valid point, and it’s not like he or she is ranting angrily here. Especially in the case of acetaminophen, which can cause liver damage in kids with terrifying ease.

  32. Parting says:

    Just putting differently colored labels, should fix the problem.

  33. Triborough says:

    If you have two similar bottles of medicine, the best thing to do is write on it in big letters what it is. It is quite simple.

  34. DH405 says:

    Could use some improvement, I suppose.. But it’s generic. They don’t have your friendly little cartoon marketing mechanisms to remind you what you bought. Read the bottle.

  35. I think a lot of people aren’t understanding the point of this post. It’s NOT about taking responsibility or assigning blame, it’s about design, and how good design conveys information more efficiently, while bad design obfuscates or confuses. This is a particularly interesting example because–as I said in the post, and several commenters have mentioned–Target pretty much has the gold medal in product design for prescription meds.

    Increasing efficiency and building in safeguards shouldn’t be thought of as “dumbing down” or avoiding responsibility. Think about it: the OP is raising a child, cares enough to treat that child for illnesses, and will wake up at 4 a.m. to do it. She also double-checks labels, and was concerned enough about the issue of child safety at large to take a photo and write to a public blog to make a design suggestion. You’d have to be a dork to classify her as irresponsible or trying to somehow avoid blame for something.

    */end rant

  36. ImFedUp says:

    I’m a paramedic and any time before we give a drug we are to make sure it is the proper one, check expiration date, and dosage. Don’t blame Target or any other manufacturer for your own laziness or stupidity when it comes to taking responsibility. Everyone wants to sue and make a big deal when common sense should prevail.

  37. Rachacha says:

    The Brand name bottles are just as bad, so this is not a target only issue. One could argue that the industry could create a standard that allergy medication should be pink and cough syrup should be purple, and pain relieved should be orange, but what about those that may be color blind. The medications are clearly marked, and if you are concerned about not being 100% awake when you give your child medications, place the medications in different areas. Cough medication in the kitchen, pain reliever in the medicine cabinet, and cough syrup in the linen closet.

    What concerns me more are household cleaners that do not have child proof caps and are in clear plastic containers that look identical to apple juice. Our family tries to be careful and keep cleaning supplies away from food products, but every once in a while we will be in a hurry and drop the cleaning supplies on the floor next to the juice. Fine when mom and dad get a new container of juice from the closet, but what happens when you have an ambitious 4 year old who grabs what they think is a contaner of juice and pours themselves a glass. Thankfully this has never happened, but I have accidentially picked up a bottle of floor cleaner thinking that it was juice.

  38. bglav says:

    It’s just you

  39. VA_White says:

    I am pissed at Pepcid Complete. Their package for the berry flavor is exactly the same as the package for the mint flavor. I thought I was careful to get Berry but opened the package to asstastic mint flavor.

    And I thought I looked at the packages carefully. I would hate to be the mom who is tired or possibly also ill herself and picks the wrong medication by mistake. If you shop at Target, it’s likely you’ll have both Target meds at your home in the cabinet and you can easily reach for the wrong one.

  40. niteflytes says:

    Mistakes happen. I know someone who accidentally put superglue in his eye instead of his eye drops. The super glue was in a clear plastic bottle that was very similar in shape to a bottle of visine eye drops. He went to the ER and they got his eyelid unglued and his eyesight was ok.

    A few years ago, not long after I had new carpet put in my living room I got up in the middle of the night to use the rest room and discovered that my dog had peed in the middle of the living room. It was dark, I was tired and mad and I grabbed the bottle of carpet cleaner and poured it onto the spot. As I poured it I realized the consistency wasn’t right and it was a dark color, not a clear liquid. I turned the light on and to my horror I had just poured half a bottle of toilet cleaner onto my new carpet. Toilet cleaner melts carpet.

    So I can understand how these things happen and I also understand how vitally important it is to always read the labels. What concerns me is that there are a lot of people out there who can not read and they rely on labels, colors and pictures to identify products. Target’s labeling makes it impossible for someone who can’t read to distinguish between those two medications.

  41. Shadowman615 says:

    Remember the recent story about Dennis Quaid’s newborn twins? It was a similar mistake, but by professionals — in that case there were vials with 10,000 units/ml that were said to have looked remarkably similar to vials with 10 units/ml.

    A dumb mistake — I agree — and I’m not blaming the manufacturer here (the Quaids, on the other hand, did file a lawsuit against the drug company.) But really there’s no reason not to make the bottles or labels remarkably different in both pf these cases.

  42. j.miller says:

    I think knowing that I had two similar looking bottles to begin with would be reason enough for me to check the label before grabbing it.

  43. Scudder says:

    Why rely on colours and flavors to tell you what the label clearly states? Read the label and follow the recommended dosage on the package. Why is this so difficult?

    • Consumerist-Moderator-Roz says:

      @Scudder: Read the comments above you. Chris clarified the intent and spirit of the post. Don’t just skip to the end and leave an out of context comment – commenting is intended to be a conversation, not just a thousand cranks yelling their opinion while covering their ears.

  44. mike says:

    OP did great by making a suggestion. She obviously found the problem and made a suggestion on how to make it a bit easier.

    It’s one of those situations where yeah, its her responsibility to check the labels, but Target won’t have to spend too much by making a small and simple change.

    I say Kudos if Target does something.

  45. mike says:

    Let’s make it clear that the mother did the right thing by checking the label before dispensing the drug. She didn’t forget or just blindly gave her child medicine.

    She is merely offering a suggestion to do something differently to make things easier for the consumer.

  46. DaWezl says:

    As a designer, this sort of sloppy design makes me crazy. There really isn’t any reason why Target can’t maintain the ‘integrity’ of their design, and yet use a visual cue like unique color bands under the name of the product to help someone differentiate the products. Similar to what they already offer for prescription packaging.

    When something looks ‘right’, your brain will fill in the gaps and make you feel like you are seeing the item that you want, to the point where you can even do a double check of the name, and your brain will make you think you’ve seen the information you wanted to see. It’s very easy to sit here and say that “Well, a GOOD parent would check the bottle!” But, even the best person can be fooled by their brain into thinking they are seeing the information they want to see, especially when all the colors and fonts are identical to the product they want. Thats why designers use strong visual cues like colors and shapes to differentiate products–you can’t prevent EVERY mistake, but you can diminish the likelihood of them occurring when you put bold differences into the design.

  47. ryanv1978 says:

    I can see where this would be a problem….if you didn’t take the time to read the bottle and just grabbed something off what you thought it was supposed to look like.

    slow down, read the bottle, and you won’t have any trouble. this isn’t a target problem, it’s YOUR problem.

  48. And definitely make sure you don’t store this next to any tiki torch oil. You could have a real catastrophe after that.

  49. thrashanddestroy says:

    Awww, or maybe we can just read the label. Oh wait, people can’t be expected to do that anymore, they need to be led around by the hand.

    Jesus Christ.

  50. handyr says:

    Read the label!

  51. MrEvil says:

    I’d say Target could change the coloring on the labels and leave the bottles the same. After all a different colored label wouldn’t cost more than one that’s the same color as all the others. I don’t think printers are charging for specific dyes these days.

  52. sethom says:

    Or buy the real stuff…with a better label.

  53. freepistol says:

    when its 3am and you have a screaming child you dont real lables as coherently as you would at say noon with no children in the house.

    easy fix, write out what it is on a piece of paper with a sharpie, tape it to the bottle, so you know which is which in the wee hours of the morning.

    target should be able to afford to spend some time on the generic lable design though, since ive noticed some of their generics cost just as much as the name brands.

  54. BytheSea says:

    Eh. Either way they’ll sleep.

  55. A cabinet full of regular pill bottles is worrse. Take some responsibility for your actions and read the damn bottle like everyone else.

  56. Petra says:

    I really hate to b

  57. EdnaLegume says:

    if your kids crying, definitely go with the one on the right…. puts em right to sleep.

  58. joellevand says:

    I’m just going to agree with a lot of the other posters: my prescriptions (save for my birth control and asthma inhaler) are all in little orange-ish bottles with labels. I suffer from migraines, allergies, and several other ailments that require me to keep the prescriptions on hand. I’ve yet to take my prescription decongestant or SSRI for a migraine, even though with a migraine I can barely see straight, since all the lights in the house are off due to light sensitivity. You see, even with blurred vision and horrific pain, I can still read, as can my husband.

    Reading is fundamental.

  59. I am proud of all of you for knowing how to read. I can see that you are proud of yourselves as well. Now ou should perhaps learn about the point of good package design, and stop leaving inane “blame-the-straw-man” comments.

  60. TeeDub says:

    @Chris Walters
    Is that the comments that we should start to expect from consumerist moderators now? Snide, condescending, completely unhelpful trolls?