Alka-Seltzer's 'I Can't Believe I Ate The Whole Thing:' A True Story
Actor and comedian Milt Moss. Source: (Miles Laboratories)
Certain TV commercial catchphrases from the 1970s stand out as landmarks, as famous as any movie quote. Alka-Seltzer's "I can't believe I ate the whole thing," from 1972, is at the top of that list (along with other gems like Life Cereal's "Mikey Likes It" and Tootsie Pop's "How Many Licks?").
What is it about a catchphrase that speaks to us? How can some advertisements fall so flat when others find their way into our collective craws and stick there forever? Writing a good commercial tagline is akin to writing poetry, though for the most part these turns of phrase go right over the viewers' heads. But when something’s in the sweet spot it goes from being another piece of advertising to a cultural phenomenon.
It's remarkable to think that Alka-Seltzer's "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" might not even be the best-known tagline for the product from the 1970s. Two years later, another line -- this one more of a jingle -- wormed its way into our consciousness with its maddening simplicity:
"Plop plop, fizz fizz, oh what a relief it is."
But that's a story for another day. Read on for the inside scoop on "I can't believe I ate the whole thing," the advertising tagline that became so much more.
It Was About Alka-Seltzer, Or Maybe It Wasn't
According to the guy who wrote this commercial, Howie Cohen, the secret to its success is the fact that it’s based in reality. Haven’t you had a night where you polished off a big dinner and thought, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing?” Thought so.
Before writing one of the most well known catchphrases of the 1970s, Howie Cohen was working on a Diet Rite Soda campaign for Wells Rich Greene. He was called back to New York City from Los Angeles where he was made the backup to the backups for the Alka Seltzer commercial push. After the main team and the back up group’s commercial flopped, Cohen was called in and he and his partner came up with the “Try It, You’ll Like It” commercial.
The commercial was a success, and at a celebration for the ad Cohen ate Lobster, chicken, steak, and pasta and when he got home he said, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” While speaking about how the ad came to him in 2015 Cohen said, "The best lines come out of real life. You catch one, you shine a light on it and you put it in the right situation.”
The line even took on a life of its own, detached from its original purpose. "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" showed up on buttons and patches that made no mention of indigestion or Alka-Seltzer. People just seemed to like the sound of it.
Milt Moss Was The Face Of The Catchphrase
As great as the catchphrase is, it wouldn’t have become as ubiquitous without help from a comedian named Milt Moss. Moss built a reputation on the New York comedy scene as an MC who was able to throw out killer one-liners and impersonations while tricking audiences into thinking he was just a regular speaker and not a performer. According to the New York Times, Moss’ performances would grow more and more absurd until audiences were unsure about what they were watching.
While speaking about the commercial in 2011 Moss said, “That commercial changed my whole life.” He continued performing after finding success in the industry and in 2016 he passed away in Manhattan at the age of 93.
The Catchphrase Lives On Through The Simpsons
Most commercials, catchphrases, and tag lines don’t linger after their ads go off the air, but “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” has miraculously lived on through the cultural zeitgeist and with a little help from some show called The Simpsons.
In season 4 episode 19 “The Front” Homer’s high school year book quote is revealed to be “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” which has gone on to become a bit of a meme in and of itself. This is exactly the kind of ad that would appeal to a young Homer Simpson, a trashcan of a young man who's obviously susceptible to suggestion. The fact that we're still talking about this ad more than two decades after this episode and also 50 years after the initial ad means this is one Alka Seltzer catchphrase that won’t dissolve.
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