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October 23, 2013

“Serutan spelled backwards spells Nature’s.”


On October 23, 1934 the company Healthaids, Inc. filed a trademark application for an advertising slogan it was using to promote its laxative product, Serutan.

Early cans of Serutan (and later bottles) featured the words “Read It Backwards” under the product’s name.

The trademarked ad slogan, which quickly became famous, made the point more directly:

      “Serutan spelled backwards spells Nature’s.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, Serutan was a sponsor of several popular radio shows, including Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts and news shows featuring the “muckraking” journalist Drew Pearson.

Serutan also sponsored a number of early television shows in the 1950s, like Ernie Kovacs morning show Three To Get Ready. (In 1951, when Serutan ads took over a full five minutes of Three To Get Ready, Kovacs sarcastically mocked this extra-long commercial break by calling himself “Ernie Scavok” for weeks.)

Since Serutan’s “vegetable hydrogel” product was heavily targeted to older people concerned about “regularity,” it was a particularly good fit for The Lawrence Welk Show.

In fact, from the 1950s and into the 1970s, Serutan was a major sponsor of Welk’s show, along with other senior-oriented products like the vitamin supplement Geritol.

Bandleader and host Lawrence Welk would often introduce a Serutan commercial and then turn it over to an announcer.

For example, in a typical Serutan commercial break from 1964, Welk introduced the ad by saying: “Here’s Bob Warren to help folks over 35 solve a common problem.”

The ad that followed showed some happy “folks over 35,” then a woman who looked distressed, with the caption “After 35" at the bottom of the screen.

Announcer Bob Warren helpfully explained:

“You know the years over 35 could be the best of your life. But as you get older, you may feel grouchy and out of sorts, because of irregularity. After 35, your system slows down. What you may need today is the all-vegetable laxative aid Serutan, which is specially made for folks over 35. That’s because Serutan provides the peristaltic stimulation for more normal regularity. This is different from pills, salts or oils. Serutan acts like the naturally laxative hydrogel in fruits and vegetables to help keep you regular. So, if after 35, if you feel grouchy and out of sorts, take Serutan daily to help stimulate your slowed-down system to more normal regularity. Remember, when you read Serutan backwards, it spells nature’s.”

By the time The Lawrence Welk Show went off the air in 1982, Serutan was being pushed off store shelves by newer laxatives.

Today, it’s no longer sold. But the slogan “Serutan spelled backwards spells Nature’s” was firmly embedded in our language and is still being quoted and spoofed.

Many people who never saw a bottle of Serutan — and even those who have no idea what Serutan is — are familiar with the slogan or at least with the “X spelled backwards spells Y” catchphrase formula, which is often used for humorous effect.

If you’re a National Lampoon fan (like me), you might recall that the Lampoon’s great spoof Bored of the Rings: A Parody of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings used the name Serutan for the character who was Bored’s version of the evil wizard Saruman in Tolkien’s Trilogy.

Not long ago, I saw a YouTube video of some giggling teenage girls gleefully spoofing the old Serutan slogan.

Well, yuck it up while you can, girls. Someday you’ll be old yourselves and downing your daily laxatives. It won’t be Serutan. But it might well be a product made with the same key ingredient that was in Serutan — psyllium.

Psyllium is in a number of modern “fiber supplements,” such as Metamucil.

I suppose Metamucil may be as good or better than Serutan at helping “folks over 35 solve a common problem.” But it doesn’t have the same potential for a good slogan when spelled backwards.

For more Serutan trivia see...

• The Healthaids, Inc. entry in the book Sold on Radio: Advertisers in the Golden Age of Broadcasting by Jim Cox

“Serutan Yob,” the spoof song “For Backward Boys And Girls Under 40” by Red Ingle & The Unnatural Seven

• The “Laxative ‘In’ Product For Over 35 Crowd” page, on the great Old-Time Radio website

• The discussion of the pursuit of "regularity" in the book Inner Hygiene: Constipation and the Pursuit of Health in Modern Society by James C. Whorton

• The 1945 Health Instruction Yearbook entry noting that the Federal Trade Commission had issued a cease-and-desit order against Healthaids, Inc. to stop “any advertisement which represents directly or indirectly that Serutan is a cure or remedy for constipation.”

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