Skip to main content

Frank Buckley, of Buckley's Cough Syrup, is the newest inductee to the Marketing Hall of Legends.

Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Brutal honesty made Frank Buckley famous. So it is ironic that Mr. Buckley himself has often been mistaken for an enterprising work of fiction.

Peter Byrne - the ad man behind Buckley's iconic "It tastes awful and it works" catchphrase - liked to cap off his focus groups with a bit of fun. The final question for participants: Do you think Frank Buckley is real? Invariably, they decided that someone so charmingly self-deprecating could not possibly be the actual head of the cough syrup company; that much folksy authenticity had to be a marketing ploy. Mr. Buckley, who liked to monitor the sessions from behind the one-way mirror, would then emerge. And everyone would demand an autograph.

This week, Mr. Buckley is being honoured for just how real he is; at a gala on Thursday night, he was inducted into the Marketing Hall of Legends, which recognizes Canadians who have contributed to the field of marketing and brand-building.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Buckley, sitting at a desk cluttered with cards for his 90th birthday, isn't quite sure he qualifies as a legend. "What the hell's the definition of a legend? I don't know really, … " he says, in that familiar gruff yet amicable voice. "At least we did a reasonably good job of selling during that period of time."

But while agencies' client lists are teeming with risk-averse companies who fear even a hint of negativity in their campaigns, Mr. Buckley's willingness to insult his own product was rare, Mr. Byrne says. And while the creative types behind the campaign have won awards in the past, he is happy to see the pitchman get some recognition.

"Frank himself is so honest. That's just his nature," he says. "The thing would have worked even without the bad taste. It was Frank."

Mr. Byrne recalls the meeting in 1986 where he pitched the "bad taste" idea on behalf of his agency at the time, Ambrose Carr Linton Kelly. Usually, he says, creatives go into these meetings with three pitches: one that represents what the client wants, one that the client might consider on a good day, and one that you actually think they ought to do (and is almost certain to be rejected.)

Thankfully, Mr. Buckley was in a risk-taking frame of mind. Over the years, the Canadian brand has featured print ads with Mr. Buckley smiling sweetly alongside copy such as "I'm dedicated to ensuring every new batch of Buckley's tastes as bad as the last," and "Open wide and say '@#$%&*!'" And every ad, whether in print, on radio or TV, finishes with that ubiquitous catchphrase.

"It does taste bad. I recognized that from the beginning," Mr. Buckley says. Even his father, W.K. Buckley, who concocted the foul-tasting syrup in his pharmacy in Toronto in 1919, used to refer euphemistically to a "brisk taste" in the company's old radio spots.

It also used a fraction of the media spend that multinationals in the pharmaceutical space were able to shell out, and rocketed past all of them in brand recognition.

Story continues below advertisement

Before the campaign began, the brand toiled in relative obscurity - "like ninth or 10th" Mr. Buckley says - and by 1992 it was the No. 1 selling cough syrup in Canada. It held on to that spot without needing to spend more. In 1996, for example, all the competitors in the category spent a combined $9.5-million on advertising, and Benylin and Robitussin alone each spent $1.9-million. Buckley's dominated while spending only $522,000. The product was still No. 1 when the company was bought by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG in 2002, Mr. Buckley says.

Of course, it wasn't the first brand to use a slightly negative message to sell itself: Mr. Byrne himself was inspired by the legendary Bill Bernbach, who conceived of the campaign for Avis car rental that boasted, "Avis is only No. 2 … We try harder." But the Buckley's risk-taking ad strategy is now a model for Canadian agencies.

"We often talk about it as an example when we're trying to talk to clients about the opportunity to use negativity in their advertising," says Jack Bensimon, the co-founder with Mr. Byrne of Bensimon Byrne, which continued to handle the Buckley's account from its founding until 1997, when its merger with another agency created a conflict with the Vick's account.

Mr. Bensimon says it's becoming more accepted today for even traditional companies to use more risky messages in their advertising. Take Kraft Foods Inc. The family-oriented advertiser has experimented with a negative character in ads for its Athenos line: a fictional yiayia (Greek grandmother) who approves of the brand's authentic hummus and Greek yogurt but disapproves of the people serving them. ("You are the wife," she tells a stay-at-home father in one spot. In another, an unmarried couple who are living together earn the rebuke, "You are going to hell.") [Watch Kraft 'Athenos' ads]/relation>

And the sense of authenticity that the very frank Mr. Buckley brought to the brand, was also ahead of its time, especially in Canada.

Also being honoured by the Marketing Hall of Legends this week for lifetime achievement are the creative duo Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk, who are best known for their Dove "real beauty" campaign. That revolutionary campaign was part of the push toward authenticity that brands like Buckley's helped to foster in Canada, says Stefan Danis, co-founder of the Marketing Hall of Legends.

Story continues below advertisement

Now in its seventh year, The Marketing Hall of Legends chooses its inductees based on votes from more than 700 of Canada's top marketers, including the top marketing executive from nearly every major Canadian company, who weigh in on the most influential brand builders.

Mr. Byrne believes the trend will only pick up speed now. "It's an underused technique, honesty. … With the Internet, there's no more secrets," he says. "I think we're going to see a lot more honesty."

And even though Buckley's is no longer Canadian, it has held on to its "bad" brand image. Novartis still uses the tagline, without which Mr. Buckley believes the company never could have successfully marketed its new product, Buckley's Mucous and Phlegm ("The worst name I've ever heard in the business," says Mr. Buckley, who abhors the word mucous. "The word is just terrible!")

And as a condition of the sale, the Swiss company kept a contract with him agreeing that he would appear in any advertising they needed for another five years. That contract has expired, but Mr. Buckley, the consummate salesman, says he'd still consider another ad or two, if they asked him.

"I don't know whether I could speak as well," Mr. Buckley says. "As you grow older, you find your voice starts getting a little hoarser than it used to be. … But I could certainly try, that's for sure."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter