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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 120 - Siren songs in an advertising dream world


YOU may not believe this, but there was a time when meadow, grove and stream, the earth and every common sight, to me did seem apparell’d in celestial light, especially when I entered the world of advertisements. There, I have seen wondrous sights of breakfast cereals that probably exceeded the flavour and nut-crunching nutritiousness of ambrosia, the low-fat, cholesterol-cutting, vitamin-lavish grub of the gods and, in like manna, bed-time beverages that soothed the nerves and slugged the mind into sleep and anti-ageing moisturisers, allegedly so potent, that they could probably transform those resembling newly dug-up Pharaohs into the likenesses of wrinkle-free, wind-blowing cherubs in corners of old maps.

I have not only been invited to sample the tastebud treasures of polyunsaturated fat margarine, but also the delights of driving a car of engine-purring perfection, probably with perfumed air in the tyres and beyond even my dreams of avarice, and experienced holidays in brochure-coloured lands, where hotels are stately pleasure domes surpassing the dreamland decrees of the poet Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.

I remember when I wondered where the yellow went when I brushed my teeth with Pepsodent, when the Esso sign meant happy motoring and when I was promised (unfulfilled, of course) that I would look a little lovelier each day if I used fabulous Pink Camay. All these were, to greater or less degrees, siren songs with no denigrating descants sounded in the interests of stark reality, unlike a recent newspaper advertisement for a medicament called Pulmo Bailly which states: "Anything that tastes this bad must be doing you good." In describing the product as "powerful cough control", it adds with premonitory frankness: "It’s not nice."

DESPITE being a cough medicine connoisseur, who has judiciously laid down a pipe of rare old expectorant, I have not encountered that product, so I am unable to judge its effectiveness, but it has rung a new note on an old moral and therapeutic bell.

The credos, "If it tastes bad, it must do you good" and "no gain without pain", have been extant in Britain at least since Victorian days and were especially evident when helpless children were given spoonfuls of brimstone (sulphur) and treacle to cleanse their cringing systems of physical and probably moral impurities so that they would be fit to give the empire a stiff dose of British rule.

Most of my childhood medicines seemed to have had repellent tastes that ranged from rotten eggs beaten up in seawater to rhubarb juice added to battery fluid. In my day, parents seemed obsessed with the "regularity" of their children. Any hint of bowel backsliding brought a devastating pharmaceutical assault.

Friday night bedtimes were often purgative periods and when we staggered out pallidly to play next day, we scrutinised each other’s pinched faces to see if force of character had overcome the previous night’s purgatory. Sarah Bostock had serenely survived Syrup of Figs, Angus McEnemy was terse and seemed retarded after two tablespoonfuls of castor oil, Bunty Sinclair was spectral after the dread ipecacuanha, but Janet Thrawn was an ebullient Gregory’s Powder girl, and no wonder - her doting parents used to give her a charcoal health biscuit to take away the taste.

IT WAS the anti-cough artillery that made school mixed infants sag, not just at the prospect of being hit with yet another cold but at the shot-and-shell suppressants and expectorants deployed. Some products felt as if torchlight processions had been swallowed, many suggested wasps’ blood and gunpowder, while others hinted at distilled water from a rusty tank with a dash of creosote. As we struggled to get our breath after some peculiarly pungent potion, our parents would intone the mantra: "If it tastes bad ..."

That assumption did not apply to some chest rubs that could smell like 1,000 tomcats shut in a room all night. Occasionally, some of us children would go about with our germicidal patinas wafting hospital corridor scents. Bacteria probably recoiled from us; so, unfortunately, did people.

Tonics? They are, my chemist tells me, seldom prescribed or retailed now, but once, those who felt "run down" or who just wanted to put a spring in their step on their way to the doctor’s surgery, would down draughts of them, some seemingly strong enough to bring an ox to its knees. My grandfather had one that contained strychnine, took his breath away temporarily and produced a faint humming in his ears, but he swore it made him feel a new, if slightly stunned man afterwards.

There was a time when ill-tasting pharmaceutical cures, preventives and pick-me-ups to me did seem apparelled in a health-giving light. No longer; I want them all top-quality ambrosial but, if not, I insist on a spoonful of flavour-rich nectar or equivalent to help the medicines go down.


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