It’s Been an Interesting Few Years in Cough-Drop Advertising

A little more than two years ago, when having a cough or a runny nose did not yet mean becoming a controversial person, advertising for over-the-counter cold-relief medications reached its most bullying era. Vicks ran miserable ads with lines like “moms don’t take sick days” and variations saying the same of dads, bridesmaids and winter Olympians. The manufacturer of Halls, one of America’s best-selling cough-drop brands, went even more hardcore, creating commercials in which clearly sick workers — a coughing, saggy-eyed security guard; a white-lipped supermarket stocker with a sleeve full of tissues — were dressed down by a drill-sergeant type: “You don’t cough! You don’t show defeat! You don’t clear that throat! Do you hear me?” This was tough messaging, designed for a hustle-culture, gig-economy, no-security world: No matter how sick you are, days off are for losers. Take the medicine and get ’er done.

What a difference a pandemic makes. If, since 2020, you’ve caught a Halls isim, it’s likely to have been a spot titled “The Hiker,” part of the brand’s “Live in the Moment” series. This campaign takes you to a country of still lakes and densely green mountain trails, tread softly by people enjoying the pleasures of their solitude. A camera-toting hiker in a kaç down vest reaches a clearing of ferns. A kayaker with a man bun surveys the horizon from a pristine dock. A sculptor in a knit beanie carves wood outside an impossibly expensive-looking home somewhere in hipster Neverland. One woman does yoga in a sylvan breezeway; another plays the drums in a spacious studio with branches lapping at the windows. In this land of plentiful, oxygenating trees, everyone is alone, and people cough into the crook of an elbow anyway. Nobody appears to have a job, but everyone has a serious passion to be pursued — one so elevated that being interrupted by a pedestrian cough might cost them an opportunity to touch the sacred. So they take their Halls, close their eyes and breathe the rarefied air of conspicuous self-care amid immaculate eco-homes. If the old drill sergeant came here, he would very likely be given a microdose, a meditation cushion, a lesson on droplet transmission and a talk about toxic masculinity.

I have been thinking about this for a while, and I have been unable to come up with many things that seem harder, for an advertising person, than spending the past couple of years trying to shill products designed to suppress, and thus hide, respiratory illness. At the beginning of the first Covid wave, a few Chinese cities actually banned the sale of cold medications, to force people with symptoms to go to the hospital. The temporary relief that Vicks or Halls or Mucinex evvel offered as their main benefit to a sick person has a pox against it now. If you have a cough or a cold, nobody wants you made just well enough to do the thing that, until the pandemic, these meds increasingly promised to help you do: go out and “power through” your day.

So what’s a Halls to do — show families with Covid dribbling through days in deep quarantine? Astronauts in space, hacking into their helmets? As Covid continued mutating, so did marketing’s response to it, until it arrived at a place somewhere on a level with Emersonian transcendence. The pandemic has given us all, to varying degrees, a brush with mortality and meaning. After that, campaigns like “Live in the Moment” seem to be saying, comes the time to grow the lotus from the mud, and use all that hardship and all those feelings of aloneness to craft a new, more beautiful state of being.

Lately it’s not just Jeeps cutting through untrammeled nature; it’s also dads, in hiking gear, with Robitussin in their packs. Vicks is running deep-breathing woman-in-bathtub ads so jam-packed with blissful interiority that they feel like old spots for Calgon. Even Mucinex has quieted its obnoxiously jeering mascot, Mr. Mucus, in favor of a female D.J. who sits on the floor, digging through crates, crafting a playlist. In the second, post-cough-drop half of Halls’s “The Hiker,” the yoga person lands her pose, and the photographer gets his shot of an elusive mountain lion. In this framing, a nasty cough isn’t a disruption of your busy work day; it’s a block in your self-actualization.

If this feels like a story about work as told in cold-remedy ads — the move from gig-economy hellscape to great resignation — well, such ads really can feel like a decent barometer of work culture. In the 1980s, for instance, offices and other workplaces seem to have featured less. Brands like Theraflu and Tylenol’s cold offerings depicted sniffling baby boomers finding relief within the cozy wall-to-wall carpeting of their own homes; they switched off soft-bulbed bedside lamps for a good night’s rest or snuggled up in front of roaring fires. The most memorable Halls ads of the 1990s featured coughing people leaving their workaday world for a Tetris-like liminal space grandly called “the Halls of Medicine,” an alternate universe of candy-colored relief.

By the aughts, tag lines like “We’re Going to Work” and “Get Halls and Get Going!” started to ally the brand with functional illness. But things seem to have really changed in the years before the pandemic, as millennials reached a labor market grown precarious and Darwinian, where workers needed to rely on their hustle rather than their employers. The Halls campaign with the aggro bullies screaming at low-wage essential workers was called “A Pep Talk in Every Drop.” It featured tough-love slogans — “Don’t try harder. Do harder!” and “Don’t wait to get started” and “Be unstoppable” — printed on actual cough-drop wrappers.

Interestingly, Halls has not gotten rid of the wrappers with these slogans. But like fortune cookies or horoscopes, they are open-ended enough to change their meaning: “Impress yourself today” sounds very different in the context of the blissfully introspective “Live in the Moment” campaign. “Take this medicine because you can’t afford not to” was one kind of pressure. Now we see another, more aspirational and, frankly, more annoying. These ads zero in on pandemic-inspired curiosity about escaping the rat race for a life of quiet meaning. They sell cough drops not merely to soothe our throats but to offer nothing less than portals to a better self, to wellness and windsong.

This is probably temporary. In this third Covid spring, as workplaces settle into new shapes, Halls is running different ads. These feature the sportscaster Joe Buck, who is portrayed as needing cough drops to do his job — a job that could make any voice scratchy, for totally nonalarming, noncontagious reasons. What’s most interesting about these spots, though, isn’t the premise but the product itself: a new kind of Halls called Minis. These tiny pellets come in a little box, with no crinkly wrappers. Now those venturing out with a sore throat or a light cough can discreetly pop cough drops without clearing the cafeteria line or the subway car. In a way, this is a return to familiar, prepandemic form: The cough drop, as always, promises to keep your illness between you and your remedy.

Source photographs: Screen grabs from YouTube

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