Step Right Up

FTR-Side bar-Step Right UpThe Rise and Fall of Hadacol

Big surprise. Red Bull really does give you wings, exactly as advertised.

It doesn't take a genius account planner to know that trace amounts of cocaine recently found in Red Bull's new cola product will not bring down that brand. On the contrary, this special ingredient is already elevating Red Bull's status as an edgy product and energizing its die-hard fan base.

How does Red Bull do it? How does it stay on top? Simple: It's not just a drink, it's a way of life. In other words, Red Bull is a "cult brand," which any marketing egghead will tell you is a product that has a special charisma, commands unprecedented customer loyalty and needs little to zero advertising to keep sales humming.

Cult brands are nothing new. Case in point: Remember Hadacol? At one time it was one of the most potent cult brands around, and a distant "coozan," you might say, of Red Bull. Hadacol was invented in 1945 by Dudley LeBlanc, aka "Coozan Dudley," a peripatetic Cajun salesman, the Billy Mays of his generation, who was so well liked he was elected state senator.

While in office, Coozan Dudley was taken ill and treated by a doctor who spoonfed him a multi-B-vitamin drink. He recovered, stole the recipe (and later admitted to it) and gave a name to the new elixir by mashing up the initials of his company - The Happy Day Company - and adding the letter "L," for LeBlanc.

Hadacol was a B-vitamin drink (mixed with nicotinic acid) that tasted foul - like swamp water, some said - but found a huge following, just like Red Bull. Unlike Red Bull, Hadacol was not promoted as a sports or energy drink; it was billed as a tonic for virtually any health issue.

Hadacol ads claimed the pungent syrup relieved nervousness, irritability, indigestion, chronic fatigue, dyspepsia, loss of appetite, loss of strength, inability to sleep, loss of weight, malnutrition, skin disorders, eye disorders, gassiness and constipation, writes Floyd Martin Clay in Coozan Dudley LeBlanc: From Huey Long to Hadacol, a biography of the "Hadacol King." Testimonials from devoted customers (the brand evangelists of their day) went even further. According to them, Hadacol could cure everything from epileptic fits to the "after effects of a cold" (though tellingly not a cold itself). It was even said to be an aphrodisiac and a viable substitute for antifreeze in cars.

The drink became a sensation, despite the fact that it didn't actually cure anything, at least not to the satisfaction of serious health professionals. Cynics claimed its popularity derived from its own special ingredient: alcohol. Coozan Dudley insisted alcohol was only used as a preservative. The elixir contained 12 percent ethyl alcohol, as much as wine and strong beer. Basically, Hadacol was the equivalent of a Red Bull cocktail.

LeBlanc produced his own ads, but more important, he created a cultural movement around the product by staging elaborate events called Hadacol Caravans that traveled the country. According to Clay's book, the caravans consisted of "seventy Hadacol trucks, twenty-five automobiles, two air-conditioned buses for the performers, one photo-lab truck, three sound trucks, two beauty queen floats, three airplanes and two calliopes." The stars on hand for each event ran the gamut from George Burns and Gracie Allen, to Mickey Rooney, Chico Marx, Jack Dempsey, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, Hank Williams and "Coozan" Dudley himself, who was fast becoming a celebrity in his own right.

The caravans hawked Hadacol comic books, T-shirts, lipstick and water pistols. The company distributed "Captain Hadacol" cards to kids, redeemable for the drink. Coozan Dudley hired comedians to write quips about Hadacol's alleged aphrodisiac properties and its alcoholic potency. He commissioned a hit song, "Hadacol Boogie," that went like this:

A-standing on the corner with
my bootle in my hand,
And up stepped a woman, said
"My Hadacol Man."
She done the Hadacol Boogie, Hadacol Boogie
Hadacol Boogie, Boogiewoogie
all the time

All of this hoopla helped crown Coozan Dudley the "million-dollar medicine man." According to Time magazine, Hadacol sales grossed $24 million in 1950. At the height of the brand's success, the Federal Trade Commission stepped in and played killjoy, ordering LeBlanc to stop advertising the therapeutic properties of Hadacol and to cease making claims that the drink assured good health and restored youthful feelings. The only claim the FTC allowed LeBlanc to make was that the drink was good for you if you needed the ingredients in it.

But that wasn't what killed the Hadacol phenomenon. The product did not die because it consistently reneged on its brand promise to cure almost all ills. What brought it down was a combination of brand fatigue and bad business practices.

In 1951, LeBlanc sold the brand to a New York financial group for $8 million. When the new owners opened up the company's books, they found it had been operating in the red, with more money spent each year on advertising and Hadacol Caravans than the brand brought in. Also, the company had racked up major debt, as much as or more than the sale price of the company, and the new owners found themselves enmeshed in 14 major court proceedings with creditors.

The new owners panicked, eliminated nearly all advertising and put a halt to the caravans. The fact that Coozan Dudley, joined at the hip to the Hadacol brand like Jared Fogle and Subway sandwiches, was no longer associated with the product didn't help. Although Hadacol lingered on store shelves into the '60s, without a constant barrage of media support and the familiar Dudley face, the fad began to fade. On Dec. 6, 1968, after years of ownership changes and multiple bankruptcies, the Hadacol brand was put up for auction, the trademark was sold for $200 to a speculator and Hadacol vanished into final obscurity.

As Coozan Dudley was fond of saying: "If you don't tell 'em, you can't sell 'em."

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