What a Character!- What’s Ailing Sol?

City Desk IconA recurring series in which we take a look back at the city’s most familiar advertising icons.

We’ve got a patient here with a very long medical history! Let’s see- He’s got chills, fever, aches and pains? Why, someone’s got the flu!

How about; Coughing, sneezing, and breaking out in irregular, red specks? Obviously, it’s chickenpox!

And then there’s; Nausea, abdominal pains and dizziness, a sure sign of food poisoning! Sharp pain and difficulty when breathing? Probably an asthma attack. Fever, arthritic pain and rash? It’s probably that old bugaboo Ross River Virus.

And who’s suffering from all these symptoms? Why, it’s bound to be … What’s Ailing Sol!

What’s Ailing Sol?

Ross Driver Pharmacy (purchased by the Drug-Mart chain in 1990) introduced the city to their frequently bedraggled and bed-ridden spokes-mascot in November of 1950, in anticipation of the inevitable colds and sniffles which usually accompany the winter months. Wrapped in a wooly jacket, with a runny nose and rheumy eyes showing his sickness, the constantly-suffering Sol debuted on a billboard outside the Ross Driver Pharmacy’s original Horseshoe Alley location.

“What’s Ailing Sol?” asked the sign in bold letters, soon to become the trademark ponderance regarding the plucky, punky protagonist. Following that were a list of Sol’s symptoms – runny nose, fever, weakness, fatigue – and a diagnosis of “Why, Sol’s got the Common Cold!”

“But Sol’s got relief!” continued the sign, “From the friendly pharmacists at Ross Driver!”

Ironically, an unseasonal warm snap beginning on December eighth and sticking around until early March – the famous “Sun-Worshipper’s Winter” of 1951 – resulted in the city’s lowest-ever incidences of cold and flu. Nonetheless, the ever-informative – and often infected – Sol had won his place in the hearts and minds of armchair physicians and local hypochondriacs alike.

Over the subsequent four decades, Sol suffered any number of ailments ranging from Athlete’s Foot to Angina, from Measles to Melanoma, and from Vexation Pox to Vulpine Cystosis – and for every illness and infection, Ross Driver Pharmacy had the fix.

By the 1970s, What’s Ailing Sol had grown beyond mere salesmanship and had become a valuable educational tool for adults and their offspring alike. Sol became a familiar figure on placards and pamphlets handed out at area hospitals and schools, keeping concerned citizens advised on the best ways to treat or prevent parasitic infections, extreme sunburn, pulled muscles and a hundred other common ailments.

It was also in the 1970s that Sol coughed up his first controversy; with Sexually Transmitted Diseases on the rise among the city’s youth, Ross Driver Pharmacy began to release their trademark educational advertisements diagnosing Sol with such embarrassing and prickly symptoms as open sores on the genitals and a burning sensation when urinating.

The lovable, put-upon Sol became the target of criticism from local decency groups – The Wives of Armenian Saints, a select Lutheran ladies’ auxiliary more popularly known for their once-a-year Raisins-and-Rum bake sale at the Center City Community Complex, chided Ross Driver for providing treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, and famously suggested in a 1973 open letter to the Journal-American that Sol should instead be shown suffering greater punishments in subsequent billboards, as payback for his perceived promiscuity.

Ross Driver refused to fold, and Sol continued to mix the occasional “crotch rot” with his canker sores and persistent coughs. In fact, a similar Sol advertisement from 1987 almost ended the campaign in a swarm of public protest. Running in all major newspapers and Visitors Bureau pamphlets, the ad portrayed an emaciated Sol clutching an IV stand, and declaring “What’s Ailing Sol? Swollen glands, sudden dramatic weight loss, drastically reduced immune system? Why,” the ad po-facedly declared, “Sol’s got AIDS!”

The buyout of Ross Driver Pharmacies – and seventy percent of all other locally run drug stores and pharmacies – by Drug-Mart in the early 1990s put an end to What’s Ailing Sol, even when countless head colds, third-degree burns and traumatic abrasions could not. Ross Driver’s poor beleaguered patient finally gave up the ghost in favor of Drug-Mart’s stark black-and-white, trilingual, all-text ads and billboards.

And yet Sol lingers on, and his complaints can still be catalogued in some of the city’s free clinics and mobile tent “Public School Triage” teams. Lucky hipsters may still even stumble across the image of Sol on a worn, plain-white tee-shirt down at some local used clothing shops, the artifact of Sol’s enlistment in 1971’s “War Against Anemia.”

So if the symptoms include fond memories, a lifetime of helpful health advice, and a certain sticktoitiveness, then it must be … What’s Ailing Sol.
– J. Morris

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