A Cultural and Historical Examination of the Cough Drop
Sometime around 1872, the Smith Brothers made one of the great decisions in marketing history. About twenty years earlier, a street vendor named Sly Hawkins wandered into a restaurant owned by James Smith (father of the brothers) located in Poughkeepsie, New York. Hawkins was broke, hungry, and clever; in order to get himself fed, he offered Smith his recipe for what he called “cough candy.” Smith accepted, started making his own “cough candy,” and when his sons, William and Andrew, were fully grown, they began producing more of it and marketing it more aggressively to the public. With sales rising, a decision was made to sack the word “candy” from the name of the product. The Smith Brothers replaced it with the word “drop,” and with that decision, the very first box of “cough drops” was sold.
Meanwhile, across the pond in Great Britain, a new company began, starting around 1893 and selling jams, caramels, and something that was apparently popular at the time called a “humbug.” The company was called HALLS, named after another set of brothers. The HALLS Company continued doing business, likely aware of the Smith Brothers’ new advent of a menthol cough drop in 1922. It’s difficult to say how aware the HALLS brothers were of this, but in the 1930s they invented their own recipe for cough drops, using a combination of menthol and eucalyptus, and began marketing them. The Smith Brothers continued on, selling their company in 1963. Nine years later, their line of cough drops came to an end. As it did, HALLS Cough Drops, which were introduced to the US in the 1950s, proved to be extremely popular. The company had a hit on their hands. By the 1990s, HALLS cough drops were being sold all around the world.
Interestingly, though, they were not marketed the same way from country to country. Personally, I can distinctly remember the HALLS commercials that played on American television in the 1980s. I remember the phrase “the HALLS of medicine” and the ad where the camera drifts through what appears to be a cave made entirely of cough drops. The commercial states, in a very serious tone, that, “HALLS are REAL medicine.” And that’s how my perception of the product was shaped, I guess. I’ve always thought, subsequently, of HALLS as a medicinal product, one used to treat a cough just as Vicks Vapor Rub is meant to treat chest congestion or Tinactin is meant to treat athlete’s foot in a tough actin’ way.
However, in many parts of the world, this “REAL medicine” tagline has never existed. Throughout Asia, HALLS is marketed and viewed as straight up candy. Thus, I’ve been thrown for a loop several times by Korean people, usually students, and how they react when I pop a HALLS in my mouth to treat a sore throat.
“Yum!” they’ll say. “Can I have a candy?”
“Candy?” I’ll snap back. “This is medicine.”
“What? That’s candy!”
Then I’ll point out that at my school in the US, where I taught for several years, it was forbidden for a teacher to give a student a HALLS cough drop, as it was hammered into our heads that teachers could not under any circumstance give a child any form of medication (it could result in death). I’d also explain that I could not in fact give away a precious cough drop; it was for my health, and it wouldn’t be right for somebody else to take the cough drop just for personal pleasure.
“But that isn’t medicine,” I heard over and over again, from younger and older people. “It’s delicious candy…I love the taste of it.”
I was so confused by this, the idea that HALLS is candy and not medicine, that I started researching it on the Internet. According to Wikipedia, “In some parts of the world, including Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and the Philippines, Halls is advertised as a mentholated hard candy and is not recognized as a medicine for coughs. In the UK, Halls Extra Strong has recently dropped all mention of an active ingredient (or of coughs) from the packaging, which now describes the contents as ‘Extra Strong Original flavour hard boiled sweets.’”
How, I wonder, does HALLS stay afloat if it’s nothing more than a candy? It tastes medicinal to me; who in their right mind would, if desiring some candy, choose HALLS over a Snickers bar or peanut butter cup? As a medicine, HALLS has basically no competition. As candy, it’s David against an army of Goliaths. HALLS vs. Gummi Bears? I’m going with the gelatinous mammals. HALLS vs. Twizzlers? No contest. HALLS vs. a Tootsie Roll? That one’s close. Depends on if they have the excellent “blue” flavor of HALLS. If not, I’ll be more enthusiastic about a Tootsie Roll than the 69 Boyz were.
Putting more thought into this, I began to ponder the grey area between candy and medicine. Gum, for instance, is sometimes marketed as a product that enhances one’s breath and is good for oral hygiene. Yet, I can’t view gum as a health product. True, the intent is there; I feel there is a wider gap between gum and mouthwash than HALLS and, say, a jolly rancher. What about Flintstone Vitamins? Those are technically a health product but, when I was a kid, if they didn’t have a child protective cap on them, you bet I would’ve tried to eat a whole bottle. They were delicious. I could’ve been the first child to ever overdose on them. Could you imagine how humiliated my parents would’ve been? It would be hard to admit that their child OD’ed on Flintstones chewables, as opposed to something cool like heroin. Even worse, with my loss, the company would have to change the jingle to say, “We are Flintstone kids, 9,999,999 strong and growing.”
That’s just not as catchy.
There’s a reason the Smith Brothers decided to drop (pardon the pun) the ‘candy’ and changed it to ‘drop.’ What was that reason? Was it because their product was medicine, or because they wanted to segregate it away from all the other candy products around? For over 25 years of my life, I’ve viewed the cough drop as medicinal and now I think that’s because of advertising. I feel like a sap but, at the same time, I’m still absolutely convinced it really is medicine. What can I say? In our world full of marketing and commercials, I suppose there really is but a minute difference between a Health Bar and a Heath Bar.