Feed a Cold, Starve a Pfever

Okay, ice skating fans and men of a certain age who had serious boyhood crushes on Peggy Fleming: How many of you immediately envision rivers of snot whenever you recall Fleming on ice? Answer: Zero.

Actually, that’s not correct. Someone somewhere made the connection between the Olympic figure skating gold medalist and phlegm. She is the new face of a Robitussin contest: “Does your last name sound like a cold and flu symptom we treat?” Or, as Robitussin explains helpfully on the web site, “Like Fleming sounds like phlegm.” And if your last name does indeed sound like a cold symptom, you could win some free Robitussin.

Now, far be it from me to suggest that any advertising or marketing idea is stupid. As I’ve revealed, long ago I worked for an ad agency in Manhattan, and I was on the “business-building team” that came up with perhaps the dumbest idea ever born on Madison Avenue. Our assignment: Find additional uses for toilet paper. Our solution: Try and get men to use the stuff the way women do – i.e., after going number one as well as number two. We envisioned toilet paper dispensers beside urinals in men’s rooms at airports and stadiums, and an outreach program to daycare and preschool teachers. There was even talk (and thank heavens it never went beyond talk) of an ad campaign with a pun in that tagline that went something like this: “Real men aren’t pea-brains.” Trust me, not even Don Draper or his cohorts on “Mad Men” could have gotten that lead balloon off the ground.

And although I have never been paid to endorse products, I have been used in promotions for items or services as diverse as the Oxford English Dictionary, the Vermont Children’s Trust Fund, the Addison County Humane Society, and Cabot Cheese. I only mention this so you know that:

a)     I am completely and totally shameless.

b)    I still think Peggy Fleming rocks.

The Robitussin contest includes a list of the eligible symptoms, such as “mucus,” “headache,” and “watery eyes.” So, for instance, if your name is Rick Meowcus, you could get a free bottle of cold medicine that usually costs $7. (Or as Dave Barry wrote on his blog, “Paging Bob Booger and Stella Snot.”) Does a $7 bottle of cold medicine make up for a life with a last name that sounds like mucus? Will, thanks to this contest, Mucus replace Snooki as the new “it” name in baby monikers? Unlikely in both cases. But you never know. Someone in this world is named Jermajesty.

Just for the record, in the Burlington phone book there are no people whose last names are “mucus,” “headache,” or “watery eyes.” We do, however, have a half-column of Flemings, although I doubt many of them were ever tormented by schoolyard bullies for having a last name that was even remotely reminiscent of a cold symptom.

My last name, of course, is unpronounceable, although that “Bohj” at the start can sound a little Klingon if you really put the back of your throat into it. And as Trekkies know, a guttural Klingon hack gives anyone within earshot the impression that you have enough phlegm in your throat to fill a fish tank. (It can also make you sound like an angry terrorist, but that’s another subject.) So, I may enter the contest. After all, the cold and flu season is here.

Of course, it really doesn’t matter to Robitussin if your name is Joan Pfever or Tom Sneezie or Scott Tissue. The first 5,000 people to register their name will receive a coupon for a free bottle of medicine.

And what I did learn from this contest? Peggy Fleming was not merely one heck of an ice-skater: She is an awfully good sport.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on November 13, 2011. Chris’s most recent novel, “The Night Strangers,” was published last month.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.