Alka-Seltzer was presented to U.S. consumers nationally on the popular program "Saturday Night Barn Dance" on NBC's Blue Network and, despite the Great Depression, sales soared. In 1938, Alka-Seltzer's claims to remedy "systemic acidity" drew the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which described Miles' advertising as "false, misleading and deceptive" after research showed that the product assertions had little medical support.
The marketer compromised with the FTC, agreeing to drop that claim and promising to submit all future copy to review by licensed physicians. Yet Alka-Seltzer's introduction to the country barely skipped a beat. Wade invested heavily in radio with long-term sponsorships, most famously on "The Quiz Kids," with which the brand was associated from 1940 into the mid-1950s on TV.
Before World War II, Miles was spending $1 million to $1.5 million a year on network radio, most of it on Alka-Seltzer. In 1939, the company was No. 16 among radio advertisers. By the 1950s, Alka-Seltzer was contributing the majority of Miles' earnings and received in turn the majority of its growing advertising budget.
In 1951, Wade asked commercial artist Robert Watkins to produce a "Mr. Alka-Seltzer." The result was Speedy Alka-Seltzer, the embodiment of fast relief. Speedy was a blue-eyed, redheaded sprite who sported an Alka-Seltzer tablet, caplike, on his head; another tablet formed his body. He appeared in magazine ads, point-of-purchase store displays and stop-action animated TV spots, in which actor Dick Beals provided his voice.
By 1958, Speedy's popularity and recognition level were at their height, both in the U.S. and abroad. Given Alka-Seltzer's increasing sales, Miles' decision to part ways with Wade after 40 years was a surprise. In April 1964, the company chose the Interpublic Group of Cos.' Jack Tinker & Partners, a small group of Interpublic's best creative talents who then faced the challenge of becoming a full-service agency to handle Alka-Seltzer's estimated $12 million budget.
Tinker took the brand in a new, more sophisticated direction. The agency's 1964 "Stomachs Montage"—depicting a series of images of midsections and featuring the tagline "No matter what shape your stomach is in"—was well received; after only 12 months with the new agency, Alka-Seltzer sales were up 64% compared with the previous year.
Tinker's revolutionary 1965 award-winning print campaign showing "Alka-Seltzer on the rocks"—a close-up of a glass of fizzing tablets on ice, the glass beaded with condensation—began a new advertising style. But Miles grew concerned by the migration of top talent out of Tinker to other agencies and moved the brand to Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1969.
Miles gave DDB a generous $20 million advertising budget with which to confront a daunting challenge: Although Alka-Seltzer's sales continued to rise with the help of its new cold remedy, Alka-Seltzer Plus, increasing costs were driving down earnings, and antacid tablet competitors were hurting market share.
TV campaigns such as "Groom's First Meal" and "Mama Mia" also won Clio awards and scored extremely high with audiences for their comedic appeal. But observers criticized the agency's style as creativity for creativity's sake. In fact, later research on the popularity of "Mama Mia," a humorous commercial within a commercial in which an actor ingests spicy meatballs take after take, showed that many viewers mistook the spot to be about tomato sauce.
Alka-Seltzer continued to lose market share; some in the industry blamed the decline on Miles' new Alka-Seltzer Plus, which took users away from the original product. After only 16 months at DDB, Miles moved its account again, this time to Wells, Rich, Greene, where it reunited the brand with Mary Wells and other former Tinker executives who had worked on the account.
"Try it, you'll like it"
WRG refocused Alka-Seltzer with a stronger message while retaining a humorous appeal. Its first campaign, "Personalities," captivated the public with spots that made light of Americans' vaunted tendency to overindulge. The famous taglines, "Try it, you'll like it" and "I can't believe I ate the whole thing," became fixtures in American pop culture. But chewable and liquid antacids were gaining on Alka-Seltzer, and some observers believed the brand was becoming obsolete.
The brand also was hurt in 1973 by a U.S. Food & Drug Administration report that suggested that Alka-Seltzer, which contained aspirin, was an overtreatment for many stomach ailments. Marketing shifted to a more straight-talking campaign to ensure that consumers understood that the product was for conditions requiring both antacid and aspirin.
In 1974, the company introduced an aspirinless version of the original Alka-Seltzer, called Alka-Seltzer Gold and clarified its ad message, specifying which ailments the remedy should be used to treat.
In 1975, the brand was still positioned well in American homes through the memorable "Plop Plop, Fizz Fizz" jingle. In 1978, Germany's Bayer AG acquired Miles Laboratories and with it, Alka-Seltzer.
WRG kept the Alka-Seltzer account until 1983, when it went to McCann-Erickson Worldwide, which in turn lost the $50 million account in 1995.
In the 1980s and '90s, rivals such as Procter & Gamble Co.'s Vicks Nyquil and Dayquil as well as Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol Cold products began to outspend and outmaneuver Alka-Seltzer, which found its brand extension strategy—Alka-Seltzer Plus, for example, then had such formulations as nighttime cold, flu and sinus medications—to be hobbling.
In the late 1990s, an explosion of direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription drugs resulted in a boom in ad spending by prescription drug marketers. That, in turn, detracted from Alka-Seltzer's marketing message (as well as those of other over-the-counter medications), and its sales declined further.
In November 2000, the FDA's determination that phenylpropanolamine, an ingredient in many leading cold products including various Alka-Seltzer Plus cold medications, was unsafe. Marketers immediately began to introduce reformulated versions of their brands without the banned drug, but the announcement had done its damage.
Despite those setbacks, Alka-Seltzer entered the 21st century with a strong ad effort proclaiming that the brand was still a contender. In 2001, Bayer supported its line of Alka-Seltzer remedies with $33.8 million in ad spending in the U.S., down 20.7% from the year earlier. At that level, Alka-Seltzer ranked No. 3 among all Bayer brands.
In 2001, it introduced Alka-Seltzer Morning Relief to treat the headache and fatigue associated with the morning after a night of boozing. But even that fizzled.
Projected spending by CMR was down to $16.4 million in 2004, as the brand received even more competition from the products such as Airborne cold-remedy tablets.