Crest toothpaste debuted in test markets across the U.S. in 1955, boasting the active ingredient Fluoristan, a Procter & Gamble Co. trade name for a combination of stannous fluoride and a fluoride-compatible polishing agent. Fluoride was the latest hope in the dentifrice market of the 1950s, joining chlorophyll, ammoniation and anti-enzymes.
In January 1956, P&G introduced Crest nationally, albeit in the shadow of another P&G toothpaste, Gleem, which was introduced to challenge Colgate Dental Cream. Benton & Bowles, Crest's first and only agency, opened the campaign with spreads in Life and The Saturday Evening Post proclaiming "a new era in preventive dental care" and outlining "milestones in modern medicine," the latest being Crest's "triumph over tooth decay." The American Dental Association greeted Crest's bold claims with scientific skepticism.
"Look, Mom?no cavities!"
In 1958, Benton & Bowles broke what would become Crest's most memorable ad campaign: Norman Rockwell artwork depicted gleeful, smiling children showing off their flawless teeth and holding check-up cards from the dentist. The copy read, "Look, Mom?no cavities!" P&G spent more than $1.6 million advertising Crest that year; however, it remained a distant third in market share, trailing Colgate and Gleem.
The ADA Council on Dental Therapeutics continued to balk at toothpaste advertising in general and fluorides in particular. At a congressional hearing in July 1958, the council's assistant secretary said the Crest headline "Look, Mom?no cavities!" was "at best both a gross exaggeration and a misleading distortion."
That changed in 1960. In the Aug. 1, 1960 issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association, the ADA recognized Crest, with its stannous fluoride, as "an effective decay-preventive agent." It was the first and only toothpaste at that time to receive any therapeutic acclaim from the ADA. In effect, this announcement gave legitimacy to a product in a field with a history of unsubstantiated claims. Advertising could now simply cite the ADA's statement that Crest prevents cavities.
The magnitude of this endorsement was certainly felt by competitors. Crest had only a 12% market share at the time, compared with Colgate's 35% share and Gleem's 20%. Propelled by the news, P&G's stock jumped sharply, and Crest unit sales jumped 3% in September 1960. By August 1961, Crest held an estimated 25% of the market, while Colgate had slipped to 28%.
Crest's advertising strategy nonetheless showed remarkable restraint. Print ads stressed that Crest should be used as part of an overall dental program. One ad read, "Crest made news because it's effective against cavities-not because it's a cure-all." A TV spot titled "Family Classics" showed an announcer interviewing children and young adults who had taken part in test groups using Crest. The ad concluded by claiming that those who used Crest had "25% to 49% fewer cavities" and restated the ADA's endorsement.
P&G also placed ads in the Journal of the American Dental Association encouraging dentists to recommend Crest to their patients. In 1963, P&G began sponsoring Crest Dental Health Month in first-grade classrooms across the U.S. Teachers instructed students on the basics of brushing and flossing and introduced them to cartoon characters that illustrated dental health lessons. Many children remembered the program because they were given tiny discs to chew that turned their mouths red, highlighting plaque. (Through the years the program continued to introduce Crest and dental care to children; in 1999, it was augmented with a Web site featuring an interactive environment called Sparkle City, after Sparkle Crest bubble gum-flavored toothpaste for children.)
By 1964, Crest held a more than 30% market share, compared with Colgate's 25%. P&G made Crest an advertising priority. Advertising Age estimated ad spending at $12 million through Benton & Bowles that year, compared to $1.5 million in 1960. Crest received more ad spending than any other P&G product, a distinction it would retain until 1980.
After holding almost 40% of the market through the 1970s, Crest's position began to erode in the early 1980s with the introduction of new brands such as Beecham Group's Aquafresh. In 1981, a "toothpaste war" erupted among Crest, Colgate and Aquafresh. P&G increased spending almost 60% that year, putting about $45 million behind a campaign attacking those "fancy stripes and gels." It also launched Advanced Formula Crest, based on sodium fluoride instead of the stannous fluoride of regular Crest. Crest advertising claimed the new formula was better tasting and twice as effective as the original. It again received the ADA's seal of approval.
After shoring up Crest's share of the market in the early 1980s, P&G still felt it necessary to develop and market new formulas. By 1985, Crest's market share dipped below 30% and became almost deadlocked with that of rival Colgate. The launch of Crest Tartar Control formula, backed with an estimated $50 million in ad spending through D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles (Benton & Bowles merged with D'Arcy-MacManus, Masius in 1985) returned Crest to a dominant market share of 40%. The advertising effort stayed true to Crest's strategy of professional endorsement and positioned Tartar Control Crest as the "dentist's choice."
In 1997, Colgate's Total bumped Crest out of the lead by less than one percentage point in the $1.7 billion toothpaste market. Advertising that year shifted from the clinical "dentist approved" positioning to a more emotional approach with ads featuring the tagline, "Behind that healthy smile, there's a Crest kid."
The focus on the benefits of toothpaste continued in the late 1990s. Whitening formulas, mixtures of baking soda and peroxide, and breath-freshening ingredients were incorporated into new products that outsold the older formulas. The Crest ad campaign in 2000 featured the tagline "Open up and smile" and positioned the product as being for "real people with genuine smiles." Crest spent most heavily on its baking soda-and-peroxide whitening formula in 1999, with media expenditures of more than $20 million. P&G spent more than $90 million advertising all Crest toothpastes and toothbrushes that year, but that dropped to $75.6 million in 2000.