The 20-ad shake-up

Published on .

Americans today accept ubiquitous advertising as just a part of life, but this wasn't always the case. In his new book, "Twenty Ads That Shook the World," James B. Twitchell offers what he says are the most profound ads ever produced. His list covers the advertising that truly penetrated the social conscience and changed the way Americans live.

In the following edited excerpt, Mr. Twitchell, an author, teacher and regular contributor to Creativity, a sister publication to Advertising Age, looks at how advertising for Listerine first created a problem--halitosis--in order to sell the remedy.

Has there ever been an ad so deliriously nasty as this? Like a baby robin, the youngster looks up to her caregiver for tenderness and gets the bad-breath brush-off instead. The body copy makes clear that here is yet another case of "a young woman, who in spite of her personal charm and beauty, never seemed to hold men friends." The quizzical child, however, appears determined to confront what her spinster aunt is ashamed of: Auntie is "broadcasting bad breath." No wonder the men stay away. Dreaded halitosis has gotten in the way of love.

How could this have happened? The tale of Listerine is unique in advertising history not because it was so different, but because it has been so successful for so long. Here is one of the first times that advertising really did create a "cure." But, of course, to make the cure, they first had to create the disease. Listerine did not make mouthwash as much as it made halitosis. Or, in advertising terms, you don't sell the product, you sell the need.

Wisk's "ring around the collar" or Cascade's "water spots" are what motivational psychologists call constructive discontents. We are persuaded not so much to buy a product as to remove some dissonance and re-establish a perceived equilibrium. It just so happens that the product stands foursquare in the path of recovery from the contrived affliction. To be sure, this is nothing but a protection racket as the company selling you the relief is also the one creating the deficiency. But advertising did not invent this kind of persuasion. Religions have been doing it for generations. Modern advertising just perfected it.

If you go into your bathroom, you will see that almost every product there has been introduced into common use by generating constructive discontent. Body odor came from Lifebuoy soap; athlete's foot came from Absorbine Jr.; "five o'clock shadow" from Gillette; tooth film from Pepsodent; and split ends from Alberto VO5. Americans today spend almost $4 billion a year on products whose only purpose is to alter natural body odors, odors unsmelled a generation ago.

The story of how this came to pass starts with Listerine.

At the end of the 19th century, Joseph Lister developed a surgical antiseptic. It was quite potent, however, and could only be used with great care lest it damage the surrounding tissue. An American named Jordan Wheat Lambert synthesized a less powerful version and journeyed to England to ask Lister if he could use the already famous name for the product. Lister was flattered and said yes. Lambert added the "ine" suffix, which liquefied the product while also making it sound scientific.

Lambert's Listerine was used not just for minor surgical procedures as sterilizing gauze bandages, but also for any kind of cleaning operation. So it soon became a floor cleaner, an aftershave, a nasal douche, a cure for gonorrhea, even a scalp treatment for dandruff and baldness.

Inevitably, it was discovered that Listerine was also good at killing oral germs. So in 1895, it was marketed to the dental profession, and in 1914, it became one of the first prescription products to be sold over the counter. (It still carries the American Dental Association's seal of approval.) But [there was] no hint of [its] use as a mouth deodorant.

That's because there was no such thing as bad breath. To be sure, people with various diseases, bad teeth, and so on, had unpleasant mouth odor, but it was not considered socially offensive. Recall that until the 1920s, most Americans bathed only once a week (on Saturday night in anticipation of the Sabbath), and that hair was rarely washed. Soap, still made of animal fats, often smelled worse than body odor!

In the early 1900s, Jordan and his wife died, leaving Lambert Pharmacal to their four sons. Gerard proved a young man of mercurial tastes. For instance, after having spent a few days at Yale University, he decided he didn't like the buildings. He transferred to Princeton. There, he majored in the good life, gaining a small measure of campus fame by being chauffeured between classes--a trip of a hundred yards. One thing led to another, and he was soon married, father of three children and $700,000 in debt (thanks to an investment in Arkansas real estate near the current Whitewater development).

Time to get a job, and no better place than at the family factory in St. Louis. His relatives were hardly pleased to see the return of the profligate, but they were soon mollified. Gerard proved to be a business genius, the Arkansas deal notwithstanding. He saved millions in taxes by adding the alcohol to Listerine (it was then about 25% hooch) at the bonded distillery instead of at the factory. He cut out the middleman for such simple supplies as corks, and he had the perspicacity to actually talk with the people who wrote the product advertising.

In fact, he summoned the two copywriters, Milton Fuessle and Gordon Seagrove, from Chicago to talk about what they were doing--which was not much. Although the mouth was certainly known as a haven for germs, no one had really concentrated on breath as a symptom of disease. As the three men were discussing the possibility of breath as an "advertising hook," Lambert called for the company chemist:

"When he came into our room, I asked him if Listerine was good for bad breath. He excused himself for a moment and came back with a big book of newspaper clippings. He sat in a chair and I stood looking over his shoulder. He thumbed through the immense book.

"|`Here it is, Gerard. It says in this clipping from the British Lancet that in cases of halitosis . . . ' I interrupted, `What is halitosis?' `Oh,' he said, `that is the medical term for bad breath.'

"[The chemist] never knew what had hit him. I bustled the poor old fellow out of the room. `There,' I said, `is something to hang our hat on.' "

As it turned out, he hung more than his hat on halitosis. Lambert hung the entire company on it. He poured money into putting halitosis into every American mouth. Lambert made a pledge to increase his advertising each month by the same percentage as the increase of his sales. He claimed he would stop this only when sales leveled off.

For as long as he owned the company, they never did. From 1922 to 1929, earnings rose from $115,000 to more than $8 million. By the time of the stock-market crash, Listerine was one of the largest buyers of magazine and newspaper space, spending more than $5 million--almost the exact amount of yearly profits. In all that time, the product's price, package and formula had not changed a whit.

Once he found out that the halitosis claim was four times as effective as all others, Lambert focused with pit-bull persistence. All other claims were relinquished. The germ-free mouth belonged to Listerine just as the deodorized underarm belonged to Odorono, the perfumed skin to Palmolive (made from vegetable oils, not animal fats), the shaved face to Gillette, and the "fresh and clean" foot to Mennen talcum powder.

For six years, he never changed the campaign, only the renditions. Lambert made it a point never to even retouch any of the photographic images that made up the halitosis campaign. Although he would do minor experiments, as with "If you want the truth--go to a child," his usual targets were young adults in the pre-parenting stages of life. Who can forget Edna, "whose case was really a pathetic one. Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry." We see her kneeling before her bureau, clutching the wedding garments that would never be worn. The headline announces the price of halitosis: "Often a bridesmaid but Never a bride."

The setting of the standard Listerine ad is just at the age of matrimony. One or the other young eligible is having to deal with the problem that "even your best friend won't tell you" about: "Could I be happy with him in spite of that?", "Don't fool yourself, it [halitosis] ruins romance," or the simple "Halitosis makes you unpopular." The copy style--called "whisper copy" in the 1930s--is always the same, a mimic of True Story advice to the lovelorn.

Lambert knew his niche because he was a stickler for testing. All his advertising was carefully screened using coupons or store receipts. He would send boxcar loads of Listerine off to some town in midstate Iowa and upstate Maine, run a saturation series of test ads, carefully correlate the results and then launch nationwide. He would try anything. During the Depression, he suggested that halitosis was a reason for firing workers. During Prohibition, he thought that alcohol content should be stressed. The company developed what he called "saw-toothed" campaigns in which they would drench, and then quickly remove, advertising until Lambert determined how long short-term memory would last, and which pitches would work best.

It is hard to assess Gerard Lambert's genius fairly. It looks so easy, but it was a combination of staking a claim on a body part, of knowing how to use constructive discontent (shame) as a selling tool, of realizing the power of research, and then of hammering it home. Although Lambert is almost always disparaged as "the man who made millions from halitosis," his later life shows it was not luck alone.

Lambert's real contribution may someday be acknowledged. Although he did a stint as CEO of Gillette (while waiting for his divorce to go through), where he introduced the famous Blue Blades, wrote some middling murder mysteries and innovated with tax-free funding for low-cost public housing, his real talent was in realizing the power of opinion surveys. During World War II, he developed techniques to help understand the psychological resistance to various military campaigns.

From his home base in Princeton, he befriended George Gallup, funded polling experiments through numerous academic and governmental agencies, and provided seed money for the Institute for International Social Research. A man well ahead of his time, Gerard understood the power of consumer-based positioning. In the stock market he never fought the tape, in marketing he never fought the consumer, and in polling he never second-guessed opinions.

When you look back on Gerard's Listerine advertising, you see that he succeeded almost too well. In retrospect, perhaps Listerine was too well positioned. By creating the mouth as a cauldron of antisocial germs that could be tamed only by strong medicine, Lambert left open the possibility that competing claims could be staked out. In the 1960s, Procter & Gamble's Scope did just that. Scope positioned itself as the feels good, tastes great, smells terrific mouthwash that--in the spirit of the times--"had it all."

Meanwhile, Warner-Lambert was left with Lambert's legacy of "medicine breath." Although they have tried to battle back with a new generation of Cool Mint Listerine (blue) and Freshburst Listerine (green), the tough-guy claims of the amber-bottle parent remain. The heritage of "tastes bad, but it's good for you," "kills germs that cause bad breath," and "the taste people hate twice a day" is as deep as anything in American culture. Amazingly, an unprecedented 99% of all mouthwashers have tried Original Listerine. That's now the problem: If Listerine excelled by convincing consumers that mouthwash must taste bad to work good, what can a good-tasting Listerine do?

But as for bad breath, at least for a while, Gerard Lambert was able to manufacture the horns of a dilemma and then sell the horn-removal equipment.

In this article:
Most Popular