| [Photo: Kevin Van Paassen,
Frank Buckley is 82 years old, one year younger than his father's awful-tasting mixture.
Most of us have noticed those television ads for the nasty-tasting cough syrup Buckley's Mixture, ads famous for the memorable phrase, "It tastes awful and it works." The face in the ads is 82-year-old super salesman Frank Buckley who, not missing a trick, brings written testimonials about his dad's 83-year-old product when he comes to meet me. He also brings funny letters about the taste. One letter from Nova Scotia reads, "We gave our 5-year-old son a teaspoon of Buckley's Mixture. His eyes watered, he gasped, and he finally spoke, 'Are you sure you weren't supposed to rub that on my chest!!'" Another letter goes, "I bought two bottles of Buckley's Mixture. I smelled it and I'm alarmed. Is it OK to take internally?" Buckley laughs at the letters and says it's all part of the reason that taste is mentioned in the ads. He reminds me of other famous ad slogans he's used, such as, "I inherited my bad taste from my father", and "I have nightmares that someone is going to make me take my own medicine."
"And what about this one?" he says. "What are the four most terrible words in the English language?... Get out the Buckley's." Frank Buckley tells me his dad, W.K., created the blend before Frank was born. "The genesis of the cough medicine is that it developed out of dad's drugstore in downtown Toronto. In 1918 the flu epidemic came along," says Buckley, "and every pharmacist had a miniature lab because these characters were concocting and mixing their own prescriptions." W.K.'s mixture took off and soon he was producing it out of a factory, an old converted house on Mutual Street.
That's all well and good, but, having tasted the stuff, I want to know what's in it. "The usual things," he says. "Camphor, menthol, extract of oil of pine [for a mild internal antiseptic effect]." The only change made over the years is his dad took out sugar and substituted glycerine. "I don't know why he did it, but it turned out to be very fortuitous because now we can make the claim, 'no alcohol, no sugar.' "
But what is it that gives Buckley's Mixture its bad taste? "There's a thing in the formula called ammonium carbonate," he says, "and there are two things about it: One, it tastes bad, and two, it opens up the airways very quickly and relieves the bronchi of any mucus that's in there.
"I don't know why no one else is using it ..."
The "tastes awful and it works" campaign featuring Buckley was created by a Toronto advertising agency and was so successful Buckley's went from a 3% share of Canada's cough medicine market in 1984 to what Buckley tells me is a 20% share in some provinces. "We were so small back then," Buckley says, "that we only had a $250,000 budget. The ad people came to me and said, 'You have a cough medicine that's very different.' They said, 'It tastes awful, and we have an individual [Buckley] we can associate with it, which the big companies can't do.' " Buckley agreed to do the ads. "As long as you don't make me into another Victor Kiam [of Remington fame]," he told the advertisers. When I asked what was wrong with Victor Kiam, he says, "If you saw any of his ads you'd know what I mean. He thought he was the be-all and end-all of the business."
Benylin has the biggest share of the market, "but we passed Vick's three years ago," he says proudly. About five million bottles of Buckley's Mixture were sold in Canada last year alone, he tells me. Buckley's Mixture is also sold in New Zealand, Holland and the Caribbean. "We had a crack at the U.S. and we lost some money. We didn't have enough weight to compete with the big guys."
Buckley, who sold the famous cough medicine last year to pharmaceutical king Novartis ( Maalox, Otrivin), tells me his company is still handling the manufacturing of the product until April of next year. Buckley says the only reason the vile-tasting preparation has lasted for 83 years is because it works. I must admit I know people who swear by it. "And lots of people tell us it works for asthma," says Buckley, who quickly adds, "but we can't make the claim. The government says that there's no clinical evidence for it helping asthma. "And we didn't do any clinical studies for asthma," Buckley says, although he thinks the testimonials speak for themselves.
Even though he's sold his company, the spry octogenarian has no intention of slowing down. "I don't want to sit on my ass and do nothing for the rest of my life," he says. Between his work schedule (he still goes into his Mississauga office every day) and his workout program (three times a week), there's no fear of that. "I do cardio, weights, abdominals and flexibility training," he says. "I've been doing it for the last thirty years when my GP told me I had high cholesterol." The high cholesterol long gone, Buckley and son Don have plans for the future. "We're looking at new ideas," he says. "We're looking for a company where our marketing skills fit in." But, he says, "part of my agreement with Novartis is that we're not allowed to go back into the cough syrup business." Which, when you think about it, is probably a good thing. What if they came up with something that tasted worse than Buckley's Mixture? Now that's a scary thought.