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Frank Buckley, photographed April 13, 2011, died at 94. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Frank Buckley, photographed April 13, 2011, died at 94. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Frank Buckley, famous Canadian pitchman, dies at 94 Add to ...

It tastes awful. And it works.”

Frank Buckley, who died peacefully on Monday, made those words famous as one of Canada’s most recognizable pitchmen, starting in the 1980s. His folksy manner and wry acknowledgement of his product’s offensive taste made him a household name, and lifted sales of the cough syrup his father, a pharmacist, invented nearly 100 years ago. He was 94.

He was such a natural salesman, in fact, that when his ad agency would quiz people in focus groups, the majority believed he was a fictional character. There was no Frank Buckley, they thought. Certainly the plainspoken grandpa type must be an actor.

The very real Mr. Buckley was born in Toronto in 1921. One year before, his father, William Knapp Buckley, founded W.K. Buckley Ltd. to sell his cough syrup. W.K. put his face on early print ads promising a money-back guarantee to mothers who purchased his remedies. In old radio ads, W.K. also acknowledged the cough syrup’s “brisk” taste.

Frank joined the company after returning from the Second World War, during which he served as a fighter pilot with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. He began as a door-to-door salesman, promoting the product to general stores and pharmacies before moving into management. He took over as president after W.K.’s death in 1978.

Buckley’s was a somewhat tired brand at the time, with a tiny share of the Canadian market and an unpalatable recipe amid a medicine aisle stocked with supersweet concoctions. By the time the famous ad campaign began, Buckley’s had just a 2-per-cent share of the market in English Canada. By 1992, it had jumped to the No. 1 cough syrup. In the early 2000s, its sales had reached $15-million a year.

“One of the things my dad impressed upon me, was that the No. 1 feature of marketing was personal contact,” Mr. Buckley said in an interview with The Globe and Mail in 2011, when he was inducted into the Marketing Hall of Legends in Canada. “ … If you saw the commercial, it was just me.”

He did not believe the negative message about the taste was risky, he added.

“If it’s reasonably honest advertising, I don’t think you’re making a gamble,” he said at the time. “The question is, if you hadn’t done it, what would have happened? …With that campaign, things started to change quite dramatically.”

The company was acquired by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG in 2002, which stipulated Mr. Buckley be available to work as a spokesman for five years after the deal.

His forthright manner was evident off-screen as well, said John Meehan, Mr. Buckley’s business partner and part owner of the company when it was sold. Having always worked for himself, Mr. Buckley was unafraid to express an opinion. He was known around the office for wearing a white lab coat – standard issue in the factory, but not so much around the corporate headquarters.

“He was his own man,” Mr. Meehan said.

Mr. Buckley was married to his wife Shirley for more than 60 years, and had one son, Donald, who recalls his love of jazz music, his sense of humour, and his tolerance during car trips when Donald was learning to play the drums and would knock his sticks around the car interior to practice.

“I have low vision, and I was able to do a lot of things with his encouragement,” Donald said.

Mr. Buckley died during an afternoon nap, nine years to the day that his wife passed away.

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