Foul-mouthed Frank

The persuasive power of brutally honest advertising. 

Almost everyone is familiar with the cough syrup that makes people make "that face". The one that makes people brace themselves and psych themselves up right before swallowing a spoonful.

Buckley's cough syrup was invented by W.K Buckley (Frank Buckley's father) in his pharmacy in 1919. He recognized that it had a 'less than enjoyable' taste but was more interested in its effectiveness. Old radio ads used to refer to the cough syrup as having a "brisk taste". It wasn't until 1986 that the "It tastes awful and it works" catchphrase started being used in ad campaigns. At that time, companies typically didn't like having even a hint of negativity in their campaigns so the fact that Mr. Buckley was willing to insult his own product was quite unusual.

The simple yet memorable campaign featuring a smiling Mr. Buckley ran for many years. Consumers were captivated and amused by his overly honest description of his awful tasting product and loved watching people make faces as they tasted Buckley's cough syrup.  Every Buckley's ad, whether it was TV, radio or print, always ended with a memorable catchphrase.

Before long, people started making videos of themselves and their reaction after tasting Buckley's. The squishy face people made would eventually become known as the "Buckley's face".

In 2011, Frank Buckley, then aged 90, was accepted into the Marketing Hall of Legends, which recognizes Canadians "whose ideas and contributions to marketing and brand building have made a tremendous impact in the Canadian marketplace." He was recognized as a Visionary, i.e. entrepreneurs who have launched companies and built iconic Canadian brands.

“Undoubtedly, Frank Buckley is a marketing legend. How he grew a small product into a category leader by staying true to the brand and taking a chance with kitschy one-liners is certainly an inspiration. – Catherine Rocher, senior marketing manager, Cold-Fx

Mr. Buckley's honest approach to advertising was so successful that he was able to outsell multinational companies occupying the same pharmaceutical space at a fraction of the media cost.

By 1992, Buckley's was the No. 1 selling cough syrup in Canada and it held on to that spot without needing to increase its media budget. Competitors Benylin and Robitussin each spent around $2 million on advertising in 1996 while Buckley's spent just over a quarter of that amount with $522,000. 

Today, the use of risk-taking ad strategies such as negative messaging to sell a product has become a model for many advertising agencies.

Do you have a negative that you can leverage in your advertising?

Morty Silber, CEO

Mad Strategies Inc.
a Wizard of Ads Partner