Never mind the Horlicks

GSK has drafted in PR big-gun Borkowski to dispel Horlicks’ association with male genitalia. So nothing more than the usual PR bollocks

Perhaps it was the serpentine skills of the appalling Peter Mandelson, or maybe the more brutal methods of Alastair Campbell, but for whatever reason the dubious practice of public relations has of late acquired a reputation for almost supernatural power.

Spin doctors , no less than witch doctors, are credited with the ability to reach beyond the bounds of reason and experience and create tangible realities where before there was emptiness save perhaps for a few old bones. Such is the faith placed in conjurors of reputations that the highest in the land willingly, indeed eagerly, flock to their side in the confident expectation that their prospects will be enhanced and their projects advanced. Not since the Tsarina fell under the spell of Rasputin have the great and good shown themselves to be also the gauche and the gullible.

The art of public relations lies in its infinite sinuous adaptability. It is capable of attaching itself to any cause, good or bad, true or false, and of moving freely from one to the other. It may even, if required to do so, bite its own tail, as is shown by the case of Horlicks and Mark Borkowski. Though there is no golden rule in PR, the nearest thing is the maxim that all publicity is good publicity. However, Mr Borkowski, a public relations consultant, has been hired with the purpose of demonstrating that it is not.

Horlicks has an image problem like no other. It wants to be seen for what it is, a wholesome, sleep-inducing beverage, but instead finds itself synonymous with the male organs of reproduction. That this should have transpired proves that life is indeed full of mystery. Somehow the word Horlicks has become a euphemism – almost a homonym, in fact – for bollocks. Hence the expression a “complete Horlicks” meaning a less than satisfactory execution of some task or other.

The word bollocks has itself slipped down the social scale from respectable to below the salt. It was a Standard English term for testicles until about 1840, when it made a precipitous descent into the vulgar, where it has flourished ever since.

Quite how a synonym for testicles came to be used to mean rubbish is a mystery. It would be nice to think that the usage was coined by an early feminist such as Mrs Pankhurst to express a pithy disdain for the very essence of manhood, but this, alas, is fantasy. Some scholars suggest that the expression “to make a complete bollocks” is Australian in origin, which has credibility given that that country is such a rich source of inventive and joyous vulgarisms. But why a complete bollocks?

Except in rare cases, such as the late Adolf Hitler whose monorchism was celebrated in song, the usual complement of testicles is, as a matter of definition, complete. On the other hand, there is the expression “to drop a bollock” which is to make an error less comprehensive than complete bollocks, so the kind of rigorous logic that passes down Australian genes even unto Germaine Greer may apply.

Horlicks came to be used as a polite alternative to bollocks in much the same way that sugar substituted for shit. The user could express the inherent meaning stripped of its overt coarseness.

The first known comment on this use of Horlicks appears in a book published in 1975, World of Wonders, by Canadian author Robertson Davies. He remarked of an actress touring rural Canada with an English theatrical company in the Thirties: “Horlicks was a word she used a lot; it suggested ballocks but avoided a direct indecency. It seemed delightfully daring, and sexy, and knowing. It was my first encounter with this sort of allurement, and I disliked it.”

Almost 80 years on, this is a view heartily endorsed by GlaxoSmithKline, owner of Horlicks. It is so sick of the brand being used as a substitute expression for items unrelated to a bedtime malted drink that it has hired the services of Mr Borkowski. On his shoulders rests the formidable task of ridding Horlicks of its alternative meaning.

Formidable is, in this case, a euphemism for near-impossible. But true to his calling, Mr Borkowski contrives both to spit into the wind and duck out of the way. While agreeing that his clients had presented him with a tall order, he hints that he has already conceived a strategy.

“I don’t want to tell people what I have got up my sleeve, but I think the approach will be a very subtle mind-over-matter exercise which will be rolled out over the next year.”

We may take it then that Mr Borkowski will not appear on breakfast television to tell the delightful Natasha Kaplinsky that talk of Horlicks as testicles is complete bollocks. Such a tactic would be bereft of the subtlety that is to be the defining characteristic of his strategy.

If, however, Ms Kaplinsky could be persuaded to sip a mug of Horlicks, lick her lips, and murmur “Mmm, that is so like, not bollocks”, word might get out that hot malt is cool.

It seems that Mr Borkowski has something of the kind in mind since he says Horlicks has already “really connected with the young and trendy sophisticates of London”. There is a word for that kind of PR plug, but it slips my mind.

Latest from Marketing Week


Access Marketing Week’s wealth of insight, analysis and opinion that will help you do your job better.

Register and receive the best content from the only UK title 100% dedicated to serving marketers' needs.

We’ll ask you just a few questions about what you do and where you work. The more we know about our visitors, the better and more relevant content we can provide for them. And, yes, knowing our audience better helps us find commercial partners too. Don't worry, we won't share your information with other parties, unless you give us permission to do so.

Register now


Our award winning editorial team (PPA Digital Brand of the Year) ask the big questions about the biggest issues on everything from strategy through to execution to help you navigate the fast moving modern marketing landscape.


From the opportunities and challenges of emerging technology to the need for greater effectiveness, from the challenge of measurement to building a marketing team fit for the future, we are your guide.


Information, inspiration and advice from the marketing world and beyond that will help you develop as a marketer and as a leader.

Having problems?

Contact us on +44 (0)20 7292 3703 or email

If you are looking for our Jobs site, please click here