Perspective: Pass the Vicks

The average Joe used to sell cough syrup. Today, it's the world's richest quarterback

Medical authorities tell us that somewhere around 1 billion Americans will catch a cold this year—no small part of why marketing authorities tell us that advertising over-the-counter cough remedies is a good idea right about now, with cold season at its peak. A billion sick people is enough to keep plenty of cough-remedy brands in business, too, but Vicks—the billion-dollar Procter & Gamble brand that makes NyQuil, DayQuil, VapoRub and Formula 44—is the king of the colored syrups. And judging from the ads shown here, Vicks is something else—a textbook case for how dramatically cough-remedy marketing has changed in the last two generations.

In the old days, ads usually showed some poor, anonymous, afflicted sap, just like this 1964 ad for Vicks Formula 44 does. Today? The man with the cough is none other than New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who happens to be the highest paid player in the National Football League. And that, said Allen Adamson, managing director of global branding firm Landor, is a kind of cultural milepost: “In today’s world of fragmentation, the only thing keeping it all together is sports—even for something like cough syrup.”

When the Vick Chemical Company ran this ad in McCall’s in 1964, its Formula 44 had been on the market less than a decade but was already revolutionizing the way people treated their colds. Or tried to treat them. Since colds are viruses, the most any remedy can do is address a cold’s symptoms. Vicks packed its potions with all sorts of stuff that did that, including something called Silentium—“the amazing ‘cough silencer.’” So here we have average Joe, who’s just taken his Formula 44 and drifted off to sleep. You feel bad for the poor guy, don’t you? Good thing he can finally get some sleep.

With a few updates, this 1964 ad seems like it would work just as well today. Why, then, are we being asked to feel sorry for a millionaire quarterback? Because “nobody cares about the average Joe anymore,” Adamson said. “It used to be that you wanted your ad to show the brand’s user, to make the viewer feel like, ‘Hey, that’s me.’ But those days are gone.”

They sure are. And more than just the obsession with sports celebrity has replaced them. Obviously, very few viewers can personally identify with a famous athlete like Mr. Brees here. But this 2013 ad is making a different kind of pitch. “It’s the torture test,” Adamson said. “People think, ‘If this stuff can solve Drew’s problem, then it’s good enough for me.’ Everyone wants product that the professionals use.”

Fair enough. If indeed Brees really does use Vicks (think the team doctor ever prescribes codeine? nah), a miserable road schedule like his is a better testament to a cough syrup’s efficacy than most anything you can think of. And even if only a fraction of this year’s 1 billion cold sufferers pay attention, that kind of revenue is nothing to sneeze at.