Turning Foul Flavors Into Sweet Success

For most outfits, it's marketing 101: In order to seduce buyers, a company must make its products look attractive, sensual even, and delicious. But some brands have taken the opposite approach -- proudly touting the foul, harsh flavors of their wares, they have built a consumer base by convincing customers that the road to health and happiness is often paved with yucky flavors.

Whether the ultimate goal is to prove a medicine's strength, dare consumers to try something different, or simply appeal to those with a taste for tart, like the Sour Patch Kids, these contrarian companies have shown that sometimes success can be found in unlikely places. Here are three of our all-time favorite funky-taste peddlers.

Bitter Medicine: Buckley's Cough Syrup

Some manufacturers of health and hygiene products -- Listerine, for one -- pride themselves on their harsh flavor, suggesting that an assault on the taste buds translates into a more effective product. But while Listerine's exploding mouth ads are impressive, they're nothing compared with the bad taste advertising onslaught of Buckley's cough syrup, a notoriously foul tasting brew that has haunted the dreams of Canadian schoolchildren since 1919. Made with a wide range of harsh, unpleasant flavors -- including camphor, pine needle oil and tincture of capsicum (purified hot pepper extract) -- Buckley's is a brutal assault upon the tongue, only slightly mitigated by the fact that many of its users are congested and thus protected from the vile taste.

For most of its history, Buckley's downplayed its taste, but in the mid-1980's, the company embraced its foul flavor. Their first move was to adopt a new tagline, "It tastes awful. And it works," but the company soon launched a campaign that tickled the funny bone even as it pushed a product that tortured the taste buds. In a series of ads, company owner Frank Buckley touted the truly terrible flavor of the syrup, noting that it was "Not new. Not improved," "Feared by more people than ever before," and that "People swear by it. And at it." The campaign was a huge success: in addition to winning dozens of advertising awards, it gave a 10% boost to Buckley's sales in Canada.

Jay S. Rosenberg, managing partner of PLM Worldwide, notes that Buckley's campaign may appear informal, but is actually a deliberate, thoughtful strategy. "Buckley's isn't messing around," he points out, "They've spent a lot of money and they know that this works." By highlighting the bad flavor of the cough syrup, Buckley's effectively turns a negative into a positive. As Rosenberg puts it, "The customers may not like it, but they know it works."

In 2003, Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis bought Buckley's for an undisclosed amount, but Frank Buckley is still a spokesman for the company, and its ads still highlight the syrup's horrifying flavor. In 2007 and 2009, it launched "Buckley's face" viral campaigns that encouraged users to show the expressions that they make when drinking the foul brew. While the recipe still involves the herbal blend that made it famous, the company has also added dextromethorphan (DM), a common anti-cough ingredient. And though the new ingredient may improve the effectiveness of the wicked syrup, an ad campaign admitted that "Unfortunately, adding DM doesn't make it taste any better."

"Eating Sour Patch Kids Until Your Tongue Starts to Bleed"

At first blush, coating gummy Swedish fish with sugar and a mix of acids may seem like a really bad idea. After all, candies are supposed to be delicious, and the sour sugar compound yields a harsh, nasty taste that -- if eaten in enough quantity -- can inflict chemical burns on the tongue and sides of the mouth. Yet Sour Patch Kids, developed in the 1970's by Canadian Frank Galatolie, are extremely popular; in fact, hundreds of fans of the candy gather on the internet and around Facebook pages like "Eating Sour Patch Kids Until Your Tongue Starts to Bleed" to discuss the mingled love and pain that they feel for the bittersweet morsels.

In a series of commercials, Sour Patch kids have played up the strange mix of attraction and repulsion, bitterness and bounty that the candies embody. In one ad, a sour patch kid holds a pigeon over a kid's head until it poops, then fist-bumps its poor victim. In another, one of the gummy candies pelts a kid with eggs, then hugs his leg. The combination of love and hate is slightly disturbing. Yet for all of that, the candies remain one of Cadbury PLC' top-selling brands, and have inspired a host of imitators and spin-offs, including sour warheads, sour Skittles, sour Gummi Tape, and even Sour Patch Kid Slurpees.

Doug Van Aman, president of Van Aman Communications, suggests that the harsh flavor of Sour Patch Kids taps into a vein of childish competition: "If you're a Sour Patch afficionado, the goal is to get your friends to try it. It's all about being the one who can hack it." The Sour Patch commercials, with their impish candy characters, play into this interpretation. Featuring egg fights, toppling human pyramids, and other practical jokes, the ads suggest a puckish perspective of life on the edge. As Van Aman puts it, "There's a bit of attractive child dare-devilishness mixed in with the marketing. It's a big playful dare."

Jeppson's Malort: "Strong, Sharp Taste is Not for Everyone."

In business for over eighty years, Jeppson's Malort may well be the harshest-tasting liquor currently on the American market. An amber-colored potion flavored with wormwood, its flavor is intensely, unrelentingly bitter. But rather than downplay the brutal bite of the brew, entrepreneur George Brode -- who bought the brand in the 1930's -- chose to emphasize it: on every bottle, he printed a dire warning:

"Most first-time drinkers of Jeppson Malort reject our liquor. Its strong, sharp taste is not for everyone. Our liquor is rugged and unrelenting (even brutal) to the palate. During almost 60 years of American distribution, we found only 1 out of 49 men will drink Jeppson Malort."

It isn't clear if the warning helped sales but Malort has somehow stayed in business for over seventy years. Patricia Gabelick, the current owner, runs the company out of her Chicago-area condominium, and admits that it is a "niche liquor," only selling "1,000 to 1,200 cases per year." That doesn't leave a lot of room in the budget for marketing and advertising; in fact, even the classic Malort sales pitch has been taken off the bottles because of the cost of printing.

Yet Malort seems to be experiencing a renaissance. The brew, which was originally marketed to Swedish immigrants in Chicago, has become a regional delicacy, catching the interest of bartenders, cutting-edge hipsters, and proud Chicagoans. Whether a hazing ritual for young men, an intriguing challenge for mixologists, or just a way to show city pride, the bitter taste has become part of the Windy City's mythology.

Although Malort is unavailable outside of Chicago, its fan base has begun to extend across the country. New York-based author and comedian John Hodgman has become an unpaid pitchman for the brand, serving it at his performances. With Binny's and other Chicagoland liquor retailers making it possible for consumers across the country to order a bottle, it seems only a matter of time before Malort finds its place in the American taste pantheon.

In the meantime, Gabelick notes that Malort has found its place among a new generation of immigrants: in Chicago's Hispanic community, many adherents regard it as a rite of passage. This would undoubtedly give Brode a smile: Gabelick says that the original intention of his warning was to issue a challenge to drinkers: "It was like 'are you man enough to drink this bitter, brusque liquor?'"

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Do you think "Eating Sour Patch Kids Until Your Tongue Starts to Bleed" sounds like a healthy thing? How about the fact that sour candies can be ten thousand times as acid as the acid produced by tooth decay bacteria? I am a dentist who did some research on this stuff years ago. I asked the American Dental Association to look into this years ago and nothing has happened yet. I have seen the damage in kids' teeth from sour candy. It should be banned!

September 21 2010 at 5:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is a stupid article. Sour Patch Kids, as well as Tangerine Altoids and the like, do not taste bitter! They are sour, an entirely different sensation. The only thing "repulsive" about them would be if someone couldn't handle the sour taste, which soon gives way to the sweet taste underneath. I was eating raw Kool-Ade 50 years ago, which is even stronger than the above mentioned products. Either you like them or you don't, but people who like them certainly aren't repulsed by them. I've eaten Tangerine Altoids until my tongue was pretty messed up, but it took a LOT of the candies to do it. (They are a little addicting.)

September 17 2010 at 3:15 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I only eat Sour Patch kids because the gummy bit actually tastes good. I. . .I should really just buy multiflavor Swedish Fish, shouldn't I.

September 17 2010 at 2:37 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I LOVE Sour Patch Kids, I've been eating them since before they were kids and they were called mars men and cost a penny each. Sometimes I eat so many it makes my tounge raw! My mouth is starting to water just typing this...lol I remember 7-11 doing a sour patch slurpee a few years back it was amazing. I'm grocery shopping tonight, think I'm going to add a HUGE bag of Sour Patch kids to my basket now!

September 17 2010 at 2:19 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Give me a break...these things are disgusting. My daughter asked me to try one of them several years back (before then I never heard of the things)she put one in my mouth and I just about killed her, I never tasted anything so horrid. To this day I don't trust her when she says something tastes good, I keep reminding her of that time when I smacked her for insulting my taste buds and made me cry, EWWW I still can't get that grosse taste out of my mind. Also Altods are horrid too, again a present from my daughter..does anyone wonder why I don't trust her taste buds?? She lies a lot.

September 17 2010 at 1:21 PM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Trish's comment

You smacked her? She probably thought you would like them. Apparently she does.

September 17 2010 at 3:18 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

Wow... ur a bit a b*tch now aren't you? God forbid your kid try to share something with you that she likes. Does she smack you every time you make her try something she doesn't like? "She lies a lot"? And the award for mother of the year goes to.......

September 18 2010 at 10:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"The gelatin you eat in comes from the collagen in cow or pig bones, hooves, and connective tissues. To make gelatin, manufacturers grind up these various parts and pre-treat them with either a strong acid or a strong base to break down cellular structures and release proteins like collagen." ---- Put sugar on it and people will eat it.

September 17 2010 at 11:53 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Swedish Fish are simply deelish!!! However, when I go heaven I want St. Peter to have a can of Almond Roca ready for me. I used to have this candy when I was younger. It was crunchy toffee logs covered with milk chocolate individually wrapped in gold paper, and they came in a pink and gold can. I haven't seen it in years, so I don't know if they still make it. But it's to die for!

September 17 2010 at 10:58 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
4 replies to Laz's comment

i am surprised that they did not mention ALTOIDS in this article since they are strong enough to taste almost bad but i guess almost dont count does it

September 17 2010 at 10:34 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

yea for the loser

September 17 2010 at 10:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm sure that acid in candy is doing wonders for kids teeth.

September 17 2010 at 9:55 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to kv37's comment

yea i noe thats true

September 17 2010 at 10:29 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I've eaten them since 1978 pretty much on a regular basis and I have no issues with my teeth, no cavaties, gum issues, or even discoloration. Of course I'm a regular brusher and flosser!

September 17 2010 at 2:25 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply