Deadly advertising: a joke with skeletons that claimed many lives
Today, everyone is used to pharmaceutical advertising, which uses pastel shades, pastoral landscapes and rave reviews of the new “miracle drug”. But in the late 1800s, a St. Louis-based company put ads for its analgesics and antipyretics on the market in the form of a series of creepy calendars. On them, medicine was offered by creepy skeletons. And everything would be fine, but, ironically, the product that this company advertised turned out to be deadly.Although the name of the company and their advertising images are similar to European ones, Antikamnia Chemical Company was American. The company was founded by two former pharmacy owners in St. Louis in the late 1880s specifically to sell “Antikamnia” – a drug designed to fight pain and fever (the name comes from the Greek words meaning”against pain”). Although the formula of Antikamnia has changed over time, the main component of this medicine has always been acetanilide, a derivative of coal tar.
The company advertised its little white pills as “a reliable medication that has no contraindications and does not cause complications”, and that is “effective for flu and headaches … it is especially convenient to take it as a preventive measure.” The company actively promoted its products to the market, sending out brochures, calendars with skeletons and product samples to all doctors. (Although the drug was never patented and did not require a prescription, its creators hoped that the free mailing list would encourage doctors to recommend the product).
One of these promotional items was a limited-edition calendar from 1897 to 1901. It was decorated with illustrations by the artist Louis Crusius. Professor of anatomy and pharmacist Crusius and his brother opened their pharmacy, the window of which was later constantly decorated with hand-drawn cartoons. In 1893, he published the Funny Bone, a collection of medical jokes and funny stories, which he also illustrated with his own drawings.
Calendars with skeletons became his creation, and Crusius drew them at the request of his friends — the founders of Antikamnia Chemical Company. Unfortunately, Crusius did not find the success of his calendars with skeletons – he died in 1898 (at the age of 35) from cancer. As it turned out later, using unusual calendars advertised a dangerous product. Acetanilide, a derivative of coal tar, had a very adverse side effect — it caused cyanosis, that is, bluish skin color due to lack of oxygen in the blood.
A number of deaths related to this ingredient were reported as early as 1891. In 1907, a medical article “antikamnia Poisoning” published in the California State Journal described a woman who took the drug. Her pulse was almost nonexistent, her skin was dead blue, and her breathing was labored. Fortunately, Antikamnia was not on the market for long. The FDA decided in 1907 that products containing acetanilide should be withdrawn from sale.
However, the company tried to circumvent this rule by changing the description of their product: now included acetophenetidin derived acetanilide. This worked until 1910, when the Antikamnia Chemical Company was sued.
Despite the scary history of the drug, their calendars have survived to this day, becoming a charming souvenir. Unfortunately, few people know that people who believed the ads soon turned into skeletons themselves, which were drawn on calendars.