Alka Seltzer unveiled: Feb. 21, 1931
A pharmaceutical legend is born when Miles Laboratories, a company based in Elkhart, Indiana, unveils a new product that promises “quick relief” from everything associated with the flu–pain, headaches, upset stomach and fever. It’s called Alka-Seltzer and it’s an effervescent tablet that does its work after bubbling away to nothing in a glass of water.
A few years earlier, during a severe flu outbreak, the president of Miles, a man named Hub Beardsley, had heard from a local newspaper editor that he had kept his staff from getting sick by giving them a combination of aspirin and baking soda. Beardsley quickly asked his chief chemist to come up with a similar concoction. The result is a tablet that combines aspirin, sodium bicarbonate and citric acid.
It didn’t hurt that two years later Prohibition ended in the U.S., just as Alka-Seltzer was catching on as a cure for hangovers. But what really made the fizzy medication a household name is the company’s ambitious use of mass media to promote its brand. By 1932, it was already sponsoring a radio show, “The Alka-Seltzer Comedy Star of Hollywood,” followed by a series of popular music programs for the next 20 years.
Then, as Americans begin buying their first TV sets in the early 1950s, the company catches that wave, too. In 1954, it introduces a cute little mascot–a red-haired boy named Speedy, with an Alka-Seltzer body and an Alka-Seltzer hat. Using a six-inch high puppet and stop-motion animation, the TV ads bring Speedy to life, making him dance and sing, “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz…Oh, what a relief it is.” Over the next 10 years, he appears in more than 200 different commercials and the character becomes so famous that the puppet is insured for $100,000.
By the mid-1960s, when Speedy starts feeling old-fashioned to a younger audience, the brand shifts gears again and starts producing a series of funny ads that become some of the more iconic commercials of the 1960s and 1970s and feature lines that are widely mimicked from “Mamma mia, that’s-a spicy meat ball!” to “I can’t believe I ate the who-o-o-o-o-le thing!”
After 1979, Miles Laboratories is no more, bought out by Bayer. But, today, 82 years later, Alka-Seltzer lives on.