The pill “single-handedly killed the snake oil industry” of advertising hucksters who were peddling an array of phony remedies, most of which turned out to be cleverly packaged opium or alcohol. For example, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup and Hooper’s Anodyne, the Infant’s Friend were opium-based products administered to kids.
The Bayer scientists who invented Aspirin developed another drug that quickly became a corporate priority: Heroin.
According to Essex, who was CEO of creative advertising powerhouse Droga5, Heroin made its debut at the 1898 annual Congress of German Naturalists and Physicians, presented as a synthetic cough medicine that was ten times more effective than available folk remedies.
Bayer produced more than a ton of Heroin within a year, and sold the stuff in 23 countries. By 1900, Heroin, driven by intensive advertising, was Bayer’s No. 1 product. One of its creators bemoaned Bayer’s mistake of “making it so cheap” for consumers.
Available in lozenges, salts and pastilles, Heroin was considered extremely respectable. “Much of that respectability was the result of its sober advertising,” wrote Essex. “Indeed, one might call it a patina of sincerity, science, and progress, very much the same tone of authenticity perfected by the good people of Procter & Gamble,” the brains behind Ivory Soap, which put modern consumer package advertising on the map.
Bayer targeted physicians, which led to hundreds of favorable clinical papers, “a form of advertising that would be reprinted in myriad newspapers and magazines.”
The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal gushed: “Heroin possesses many advantages. It’s not hypnotic and there’s no danger of acquiring a habit.”
After a decade or so, American officials become concerned with the nation’s growing drug problem. Synthetic drugs from “fancy German factories” which were once given a pass, went under scrutiny.
In 1912, The Hague Opium Convention called for the control of all narcotics, including Heroin. Two years later, The Harrison Act kicked off the War on Drugs in the US. Bayer’s Heroin was the first casualty.
Bayer has been writing Heroin out of its corporate history. “Any mention of the world’s most notorious controlled substance has been thoroughly redacted from the company’s record,” wrote Essex. “Bayer simply refuses to acknowledge its role in Heroin’s paternity, even in passing. If success has many fathers, then Heroin is an orphan.”
The Heroin brand though has never been stronger. “Which proves that advertising comes in many forms, and in many qualities, but nothing works quite like world of mouth and a strong brand name,” wrote Essex.
Once sold as a legitimate drug and alternative to bad medicines, Heroin morphed into a “universally infamous icon whose unrivaled pain-killing properties have generated billions of dollars in illicit revenue and millions of broken hearts and busted lives,” wrote Essex.
"The End of Advertising" is an insightful read of where advertising was and where it must go to survive in our ad-free future that Essex believes will begin in five minutes or 50 years from now.