It was the perfect product for a nation with a physical and spiritual hangover. After the wild binge of the Roaring Twenties fueled by bathtub gin and bootleg beer and the pain of the Crash and Great Depression, America was ready for Alka-Seltzer which was introduced on December 3, 1931.
The breakthrough was combining two existing remedies—aspirin for relief of headaches, fevers, and body pain and bi-carbonate of soda to neutralize stomach acids and “settle the stomach.” The active ingredients and fillers were compressed into tablets about the size of a half-dollar—remember those? That was neater than powdered products like Bromo Seltzer and dosages were better controlled.
The tablets were to be dissolved in a tumbler full of water, releasing the fizz of the bi-carbonate of soda. The liquid form may have helped deliver the pain relief of aspirin faster than Beyer tablets and the water in the glass certainly helped combat de-hydration common after both hangovers and vomiting.
Manufactured by the Dr. Miles Medicine Company, later known as Miles Laboratories, the tablets were marketed stacked in a tubular bottle with a screw top cap. The bottles could fit into dispensers that were set on most drug store soda fountains, lunch counters, and bars in the country. Relief was only a nickel away. Soon the bottles were also staples of home medicine cabinets as the product was relentlessly advertized in slick magazine ads and on radio programs like Alka-Seltzer Comedy Star of Hollywood and National Barn Dance.
The story of Alka-Seltzer is largely the story of marketing and advertising, especially in the days after World War II and the advent of mass television broadcasting. The pain reliever was the beneficiary time and again of some of the most memorable advertising in history.
Speedy Alka-Seltzer was introduced as Sparky in 1951 in print ads. By 1954 The cheerful stop-action animated figure on TV with both a body and hat of Alaka-Seltzer tablets had became an icon and given a name change to reflect a new slogan, “Speedy relief.” He sang a catchy jingle, “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, Oh what a relief it is” and appeared in more than 500 commercials before being retired in 1964. Speedy has been revived in a new series of ads that started airing late 2010.
The ‘60’s saw memorable ads like the cartoon man arguing with his own stomach, the jazzy “No Matter What Shape Your Stomach's In” featuring close ups of bellies of all shapes and sizes while the catchy jingle played, the classic “Mamma mia, that's-a spicy meat ball-a!”, “Try it, You’ll Like it!”, and “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”
Today Alaka-Seltzer is owned and marketed by German based pharmaceutical conglomerate Bayer. The glass tubes have long since been replaced with blue boxes holding individual foil wrapped doses of two tablets. The original Alaka-Seltzer is just the anchor of a line of home remedies including flavored tablets, Alaka-Seltzer Gold with no aspirin, just soda, and current best seller Alaka-Seltzer Plus, marketed as a cold and flu remedy.
With so many competing products now on the shelves, Alka-Seltzer is neither as ubiquitous or quite as iconic a product as it used to be. But it may still be a hang over’s best friend.