VIEWPOINT: THE ANNALS OF ADVERTISING

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In the 19th century, American popular culture was carried on the back of religion. In the 20th, the workhorse has been advertising, and one of the products that has carried the heaviest load (right behind cars and cigarettes) has been aspirin. As different as the twin delivery systems of religion and advertising may seem, sometimes they criss-cross -- especially when it comes to providing pain relief.

Bayer has been the textbook example of how a product can go from laboratory to branded product, but Anacin is the prime example of how advertising can show how a branded product works.

Dr. Johnson was surely right that "nothing so powerfully concentrates the mind as the prospect of imminent death," but the Anacin TV spots of the '50s and '60s showed how a real nasty headache comes close. An upstairs hammer-banger can render a saint into a sinner and relief can indeed be blessed.

Who was more saintly in those years than Mom? Watching her let her demonic self out of Hyding while experiencing the dreaded "tension headache" was a frightful experience. How would you like it if your Mom were in such terrible shape that she would close her eyes in pain, massage her temples, and then explode, "Can't you play someplace else!?" And who can forget the rendition in which the young married slams the lid down on the pot and turns to her mom: "Please, Mother, I'd rather do it myself!"?

The little morality play of Anacin advertising (sin, guilt, divine intercession, redemption) makes "Stop squeezing the Charmin," "How 'bout a Hawaiian Punch," and "Ring around the collar" look like playground exercises.

Say what you want, this migraine of a campaign also increased sales from $18 million to $54 million in just 18 months. Rosser Reeves bragged to The New Yorker that just the spot with the skull bangers "made more money for the producers of Anacin in seven years than Gone with the Wind did for David O. Selznick and MGM in a quarter of a century." It cost all of $8,200 to produce.

Why so successful? First, of course, it makes a dead-on-target claim. Anacin is like a doctor's prescription. The simile is made metaphoric, however, by the visual analog. For as we hear the announcer, we see three dishes of powdered analgesic being sucked back into the package. This stuff does have added ingredients! We can see them being added. Who cares if the added ingredient is caffeine? The point is that it has more than the other pain relievers plus the pain reliever most recommended by doctors, namely, aspirin!

But to think that USP is why the Anacin ad worked is to miss what's really going on. Reeves, raised in a strict Methodist family, knew the power of repetition, the power of invocation and the power of prayer. As John Lyden, his colleague at Bates, commented, Reeves "was a Methodist turned inside out."

Once you have the mantra, never let it go. You just keep spinning the prayer wheel. Bates ran this ad, and variations of it, for many years. "Originality," he said, "is the most dangerous word in advertising."

Reeves knew more than the power of incantation. He instinctively knew the power of threes. Just as Christianity has the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, the Anacin ads are filled with triplets. Here are just a few: the three icons raising hell in the skull; the three dishes with the added ingredients; the three bold words on the package, "Fast Pain Relief," and below them in boldface, "Headache, Neuralgia, Neuritis" (whatever the hell the last two are); the three promises, "Stops headache! Relieves tension! Calms jittery nerves!"; the three product claims, "relieve pain," "relax tension," "soothe irritability"; and, of course, the announcer's insistent tagline, "For fast, Fast, FAST relief . . ."

The Age of Anacin is long gone. What brought the curtain down on Reeves and his USP was not the profusion of parity products, nor the constant badgering of the Food & Drug Administration. Nor was it the suave image advertising of his brother-in-law David Ogilvy, or the lightly ironic approach of Bill Bernbach, or even the tidal wave of California-cool advertainment. What trumped Reeves was the remote-control clicker. Power moved from the voice of the godlike announcer inside the TV set to the wand in the palm of the godlike viewer. The next sound you hear after the announcer starts the litany of USP is . . . click! The hand-