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Calcium Sandoz — For 90s kids, the happy-puppy bottle scored over health benefits of the pills

Calcium Sandoz's launch coincided with the rise of a new upwardly mobile middle class. With rising incomes, there was a growing emphasis on health and nutrition for the aspirational middle-class.

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New Delhi: Little happy-puppy bottles — that is how those who grew up in the ’90s remember Calcium Sandoz today. Each bottle had a dog with an open mouth and a smiling face and they were so intricately linked with the brand of colourful pills launched by a Swiss pharmaceutical company in India, that most households kept a bottle handy. The pull of the bottle was such, that for many, it was as much about the pills as the packaging.

These bottles duly took their place on kitchen shelves as spice containers or in balcony gardens as a décor item next to a potted plant. Even now, one might find them in nooks and corners of Indian homes — reminders of a time when calcium supplements began to be synonymous with accessible healthcare bought just over the counter.

Initially introduced in a lemony ‘American ice cream’ and orange flavours, the first consumers were school-going children.

The playful ‘Agdam Pagdam Tagdam’ jingle of the Calcium Sandoz advertisement that came on television caught the fascination of kids and more importantly, their parents.

The jingle caught on much like the punchlines “Ittu bittu chhim patuta” from Sonpari and that of “Shring bhring sarvaling” from Shararat, two fantasy TV series for children popular in the 2000s.

As the Calcium Sandoz ad recommended giving children two tablets a day with their meals, it was a mantra many Indian parents followed. Access was part of why these pills became a brand — they were health products that one could buy without a doctor’s prescription.

Sandoz didn’t let its consumers get bored, it kept refreshing its flavours and diversified its products by launching women-specific supplements which they branded as Sandoz Women, which they claimed were “specially developed for today’s active women”. It also offered gifts with the bottles as promotional maneuvers.

In 2008, it went on to adopt guerrilla marketing tactics and installed a 29-feet tall “pillar of strength” by creating a bone over it — made by Saatchi & Saatchi creative agency in Mumbai. Then vice-president of the ad agency, Anand Siva, explained that it was common knowledge that bones are meant to support the human body’s framework by holding its weight, so having a giant bone supporting the flyover was their way of making the “obvious point.”

But apart from the clever branding, there was a mix of socio-economic factors at play behind the long-sustaining craze for the puppy bottles.

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Post-liberalisation demand

Calcium Sandoz’s launch by Swiss pharmaceutical company, Novartis, as an over-the-counter product in India coincided with the rise in the ’90s of a new upwardly mobile middle class. Economic liberalisation led to a wave of consumerism. With rising incomes, there was a growing emphasis on health and nutrition in India for the aspirational middle class.

Earlier too, calcium tablets were sold as prescription drugs, but the debut of a sweet pill changed the country’s healthcare market. The Calcium Sandoz calcium supplements promised consumers a better quality of nutrition, one that came with ‘taste’, similar to the child-friendly chocolate-flavoured milk powder of Bournvita and Horlicks.

Targeted advertisements further transformed calcium into an essential ingredient to be included in every child’s diet. Constant depictions of kids tired from a long day at school due to lack of a nutrient-rich diet on TV and print ads played on the fears of young parents, who were ready to go to any length to prevent their children from falling behind. The pills also held out the prospect of an increase in height if they were regularly consumed. Thus, faith in Calcium Sandoz was high and so was its consumption.

Dr Ridhika Sharma, senior drug safety physician based in Delhi, however, said that there is not much medical literature available on the product, which is unusual for any drug company.

“There is always a possibility of developing kidney stones as a side-effect of having calcium supplements in general, I saw one study mentioning cardiac issues as the side-effects in case of Hypercalcemia (excessive intake of calcium) caused by Sandoz. But that might be in rare cases. There is one more ingredient called ‘Aspartame’, which is a sugar substitute and may be harmful for children. However, without the availability of a lot of peer-reviewed research, it would be difficult to ascertain anything.”

Children in the ’90s, however, seemed to be happy popping the chalky yet sweet tablets. The ritualised intake of the supplements after meals made them feel like adults. It had the same effect on them as “phantom cigarettes”, fulfilling the dual purpose of tasting delicious and “looking cool”.

Prakriti Kaushik, a first-year MA student at Christ University, Bengaluru, says, “I barely remember their taste but I remember seeing them on the shelves at the shop and asking for different flavours of it like it was a candy.”

For her, Kaushik says, the major attraction was “the animal packagings”. “Calcium Sandoz has been nostalgic for me but majorly because of the bottles.”

End of the product 

It’s unclear what led to the discontinuation of Calcium Sandoz in India. Business Standard reported the shutdown of the Sandoz facility in 2013 (Novartis was the parent company and Sandoz was the company that produced the tablets In India) owing to financial pressures on the parent company and a strategic shift from “generic to differentiated, complex medication”.

Calcium Sandoz is a brand that is remembered fondly even today. There were many social media posts last year reminiscing how the Sandoz tablets would have aided against Covid based on the popular perception of its health benefits.

Social media users said if Covid had happened 10 years ago, Calcium Sandoz would have “killed the virus” and have been a true “life-saver”. Looks like the image of the dog with an open mouth and a smiling face is just what we need in these trying times.

(Edited by Paramita Ghosh)

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