Miles Laboratories

Published on .

Most Popular
Miles Laboratories dates to the early 1880s, when Franklin L. Miles, a country doctor in Elkhart, Ind., began bottling Restorative Nervine. Dr. Miles was 38 when he and two partners founded the Dr. Miles Medical Co., which became Miles Laboratories in 1884.

One of Miles' first products was Miles Nervine, essentially the same as Restorative Nervine, one of the first mass-marketed home remedies. It claimed to alleviate "nervousness or nervous exhaustion, sleeplessness, hysteria, headache, neuralgia, backache, pain, epilepsy, spasms, fits and St. Vitus' dance."

The introduction of Miles' calming cocktail also led to the publication, starting in 1884, of Medical News, a journal designed primarily to market the remedy. It was an early example of an "advertorial." Miles also got the word out through calendars and almanacs, spending $200,000 on these materials in 1893.

Dr. Miles died in 1929 while still active in the company, which was being run in Elkhart by his son, Charles Foster Miles. As the Great Depression swept across the U.S. in the 1930s, Miles was known as a modestly successful company but hardly a pharmaceuticals giant. Its first annual report, a 14-page document published in 1929, disclosed sales of $1.6 million and profits of $140,000. Promotional programs accounted for 53% of sales as the company produced 2.5 million laxative and Aspri-Mint samples along with 18 million "Little Books," 18.5 million almanacs and 5 million calendars.

The development of Alka-Seltzer

Sales climbed to $1.7 million in 1930. The annual report for the year cites slashed advertising budgets in the face of the ongoing Depression. In 1932, Miles was at a turning point. The company outlook was bleak save for a spectacular new product, which became Alka-Seltzer. The brainchild of A.H. "Hub" Beardsley, Alka-Seltzer consisted of a powdered laxative called Pura-Laxa to which was added an effervescent.

Marketing of the product began in the spring of 1931 in Elkhart and six other cities. Newspaper ads, so successful in advertising older Miles lines, invited readers to try a free drink of the product at their local drugstore.

A paper shortage during World War II forced Miles to cut back on calendars and almanacs, limiting their distribution to druggists in the country's 10 largest cities. Radio became the primary medium for Alka-Seltzer ads. Alka-Seltzer spots were first heard on the Chicago station WLS in January 1932. Before World War II, Miles spent $4 million to $5 million annually on advertising, most of it on Alka-Seltzer.

Through the 1930s, the company continued its emphasis on excess systemic acid, using the slogan, "Be wise-alkalize with Alka-Seltzer." But perhaps most significant was Alka-Seltzer's sponsorship of WLS' "Saturday Night Barn Dance."

Alka-Seltzer was first advertised on the program in 1933. Sales climbed and at the end of its contract with WLS, Miles renewed its sponsorship and the show expanded to Detroit and Pittsburgh. In September 1933, "Barn Dance" went national on 200 NBC Blue Network stations.

Rhymes were popular as slogans early on in the history of Alka-Seltzer. "When your tablets get down to four, that's the time to buy some more" was used until 1954. "An extra package in the grip can become handy on a trip" and "An extra package in the car can act just like a spare; you may not need to use it, but it's wise to have it there" are other examples of Miles' efforts.

In 1939, Miles and the Federal Trade Commission came to an agreement after the FTC accused Miles of using "false, misleading and deceptive" advertising claims that systemic acidity caused various bodily disturbances and that Alka-Seltzer could relieve such symptoms. Miles agreed to drop the claims involving systemic acidity from Alka-Seltzer advertising and to submit all future ad copy and claims for FTC review and approval. In spite of the controversy, sales did not suffer.

New products, new ads

The company's first vitamin preparation, trademarked One-A-Day, arrived in distributors' warehouses in October 1940. Miles immediately moved One-A-Day into national radio, promoting and advertising it aggressively via the Wade Advertising Agency. Spending was estimated at $4 million to $5 million. Commercials used the tagline, "Look for the big one on the package."

Early on, the product struggled and volume declined, but Miles turned that around with new B complex tablets introduced in 1942 and One-A-Day multivitamins in 1943.

In 1949, the company unveiled a "First-aid" theme for Alka-Seltzer. In 1952, the slogan was, "Feel better while you're getting better," along with "Alka-Seltzer—for that feel-better feeling." In 1955, ads were tagged "Triple comfort relief" and "Action in the glass." "Relief is just a swallow away" first appeared in 1957.

Wade Advertising—which won the Miles account in 1917 and retained the account until 1964, when it moved to Jack Tinker & Partners—was responsible for all these efforts.

Wade's greatest contribution to the product, however, was Speedy Alka-Seltzer, a cartoon character who went on to represent the product for 10 years until he gave way to advertising's creative revolution of the 1960s. Speedy, originally called "Sparky," was conceived in 1951. On radio, actor Richard Beals became the voice of Speedy.

Speedy fully blossomed when Miles moved him to TV in 1954. He had an immediate impact, becoming so popular that ad gurus at both Miles and Wade began to worry about overkill. While his appearances were carefully monitored, Speedy showed up in more than 100 spots for Miles.

TV sponsorships

In 1951, Miles' Alka-Seltzer first appeared on TV. After a brief hiatus, Miles returned to network TV in 1954, spending approximately $700,000 that year.

The company continued to increase its use of network and spot TV each year thereafter, at the expense of its radio budget. By the end of the 1950s, Miles' network radio spending had dropped to less than $6 million as the company moved support behind local spot buys.

In the late 1950s, Miles was the nation's No. 47 advertiser with total spending estimated at $15.1 million; by 1959, the company was spending $21.5 million on advertising.

In 1960, Miles' ad spending jumped 10% from the previous year to $23.5 million, making it the No. 39 U.S. advertiser. It dropped all radio spots and went entirely to TV, allotting nearly 72% of its ad budget to that medium. In the early 1960s, in rankings among all network TV advertisers, Miles rose from No. 20 to No. 15. At its peak in the 1960s, the Miles Products division sponsored 13 evening and 10 daytime TV network shows.

At about the same time, Miles began to develop a new product: children's vitamins. In 1968, the J. Walter Thompson Co. suggested that Miles manufacture the vitamin tablets in the shape of the well-known "Flintstones" cartoon characters. The idea proved wildly successful and JWT began to work for Miles in 1969. Another product, Bactine, continued through the late 1960s as the leading first-aid antiseptic in sales, market share and ad spending.

Agency switches

In 1964, Miles moved Alka-Seltzer to Jack Tinker & Partners, a creative think-tank of the Interpublic Group of Cos.' top talents, to find new approaches for Alka-Seltzer, by now a mature product. Over the next few years, Miles also moved Bactine skin cream and One-A-Day vitamins and the remaining products of its consumer division, which billed more than $10 million annually, from Wade to Tinker.

Tinker immediately dropped Speedy in favor of a new creative approach. The new commercials, featuring lines such as "No matter what shape your stomach's in," won many awards, including a Clio.

After nearly five years at Tinker, Miles turned to Doyle Dane Bernbach, but that association also was short-lived (though the agency continued to handle the company's S.O.S soap pad account). By the late 1960s, advertising for Alka-Seltzer consisted almost exclusively of TV spots, with a number of different usually humorous spots used in rotation. One spot featured a man and his stomach discussing their problems with a psychiatrist; another, "Diagram man," used a human as an illustration.

In December 1970, Miles moved its account again, after only 16 months, this time to Wells, Rich, Greene and Mary Wells Lawrence, who had worked on the account at Tinker. WRG is remembered for such copy lines as "Try it, you'll like it" and "I can't believe I ate the whole thing." But its best-remembered work for Alka-Seltzer was tagged "Plop plop, fizz fizz." WRG kept the account until 1983, when it again was shifted, this time to McCann-Erickson.

In the early 1970s, ad Miles' expenditures remained near the $48 million mark, although the company opened a new marketing front in 1970 through the acquisition of Worthington Foods, which marketed a line of vegetarian products via Hammeroff & Associates. But during the early 1970s, Alka-Seltzer, the vitamin lines and several other proprietary lines, which accounted for a little less than half of Miles' sales, still received more than 80% of the ad budget. Miles spent approximately $35.4 million—or 75% of its total ad budget—on TV.

In 1976, Miles' ad spending reached $49 million, an increase primarily due to the heavy promotional effort behind the national introduction of an Alka-2 line extension, formulated without aspirin. In addition to network and spot TV, Miles spent more than $3 million on consumer promotions for the chewable antacid tablet, including heavy couponing and sampling. Media spending for most of Miles' other consumer products remained at the same levels, with the exception of its Morningstar Farms line of food products; its spending dropped 35%.

The mid-1970s also saw the national relaunch of Alka-Seltzer Cold Medicine, with a new formula, packaging and a somewhat revised name. Advertising for the remedy, from WRG, positioned it as more clearly for the relief of major cold symptoms and trumpeted its lemony flavor and effervescence. It received $15.5 million of the $22.8 million in measured media Miles spent behind its Alka-Seltzer brand.

In 1976, Miles moved Alka-2 from JWT to WRG, its agency for Alka-Seltzer and Alka-Seltzer Plus. JWT continued on the vitamin line.

In 1979, Miles revived DDB's earlier "Honeymooners" TV commercial while WRG was working on interim advertising for Alka-2. At the time, Miles was unhappy with WRG's interim ads, none of which made it to the air. DDB recovered the account after barely a year's absence.

In 1979, West Germany's Bayer AG acquired Miles. In April 1995, the parent company changed the name of the company from Miles Inc. to Bayer Corp., seeking the operating advantages of a single company name worldwide. The company began a name-change campaign in March in more than 35 newspapers, magazines and business publications targeted at business and opinion leaders and consumers. The folksy campaign theme: "After all these years, it's time you called us by our first name, Bayer."

In 2002, Bayer was the 81st largest U.S. advertiser, according to Advertising Age, with ad spending of $370.6 million, down 16.3% from 2001.

In this article: