Claytons bottle 1937
Claytons bottle c. 1937

What’s a product invented in England and sold as an import in Australia for most of its recorded history doing in this timeline? Well, Claytons isn’t just a drink. It has become part of the Australian language, following a famous television commercial first aired in 1979. Promoted as The drink you have when you’re not having a drink, ‘Claytons’ became code for something that was a poor shadow or ersatz version of what it should be.

In 1991 Claytons made it into the Macquarie Dictionary, where it’s defined as:  serving as a substitute; imitationAlso, Claytons. [from Clayton’s, trademark of a non-alcoholic drink which was advertised as `the drink you have when you’re not having a drink’]  The famous advertisement starred actor Jack Thompson, who was known for his macho hard-drinking roles. The word soon migrated into the language: ‘It was a Claytons budget–the sort of budget you have when you’re not having a budget’ (Perth West Australian, 24 Aug. 1983).

The present owners of the brand, based in Barbados, have this to say about the origins of the Claytons brand:

Claytons Kola Tonic was originally produced in Battersea, London in 1880, blending kola nuts from West Africa, hops from England, and sugar from Barbados with other extracts and essential oils to create a full bodied non-alcoholic drink that initially rode the late 1800s temperance movement wave. During the cocktail boom that started in the 1920s Claytons continued to grow in popularity with four specific cocktails in the legendary Savoy Cocktail Book of 1930.

Clayton’s Kola Tonic (with an apostrophe, as it was originally known) was produced by Clayton Bros. of London. It’s not clear when the drink was first exported to Australia, but it was no doubt some time after 1902 when the Australian agents, Gollin & Co., opened a London office. The brand was promoted in Australian newspapers in the late 1930s and early 1940s as “the most refreshing and nerve-soothing beverage obtainable”.  In a time when therapeutic claims were less heavily regulated, the distributors could get away with claiming that Clayton’s “will build up healthy bodily resistance, and help you to fight the effects of changeable weather”. And they weren’t afraid to rope in some controversial spokespeople!

It appears that Clayton Bros. was wound up in 1961, so it’s possible that the British pharmaceutical company, Beecham, acquired Clayton’s at that point. As late as 1967, Gollin & Co. were still importing the product, taking out press advertisements in December to apologise for shortages owing to a dock strike. Beecham had been established in Australia since 1931 and opened a factory in Moorabbin, Melbourne, in the 1960s. It went on to produce their “health drinks”: Ribena, Lucozade and Claytons Tonic.

Beechams decided to give the little-known Claytons a boost at the end of the 1970s, when random breath testing was having an impact on alcohol sales. The Kola Tonic tag was dropped from the label and it became simply Claytons. And who better to get the message across than a hard-drinking Aussie bloke.  In the ad, purportedly written by Noel Delbridge from the Melbourne advertising agency Masius Wynne Claytons Bottle 1980sWilliams, the barman asks Jack Thompson what he’s having. “Claytons, thanks Brian,” Thompson replies. When a bloke in the bar asks Jack if he’s on the wagon, he says “No. When I don’t feel like alcohol, I have Claytons.” The announcer voice then sums it up with “Claytons. The drink you’re having when you’re not having a drink.” The ad also ran in New Zealand.

In fact, Delbridge may not have been responsible for the line. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald attributed it to revue writer John McKellar, who freelanced as a copywriter from time to time. And advertising pundit R. R. Walker, in The Age, alleged the line had been used five or six years previously in the UK for Perrier.

It appears the saying outlasted the drink – at least the Australian-made version. In 1987 Beecham sold the Australian rights to Orlando  Wines who, the following year, sold it on to Cadbury. However, the only version of the drink currently available in Australia seems to be Claytons Kola Tonic (yes, it’s back to the original name) made in Barbados.  Its makers, Armstrong Manufacturing Limited, acquired the trademark from Beecham in 1993.

Meanwhile, the word “Claytons” continues to be understood and used, especially by those who were of drinking age in the 1980s. It still pops up regularly, often in a political context, where it has connotations of shadiness.