At the end of the 19th century, the English surgeon Joseph Lister developed a surgical antiseptic. Jordan Wheat Lambert, an American, synthesized a less powerful version of the antiseptic and asked Dr. Lister if he could use his already-famous name for the product. Dr. Lister was flattered and gave his approval. Mr. Lambert added the -ine suffix and introduced Listerine.
In 1895, Mr. Lambert's company, Lambert Pharmacal, first marketed Listerine to the dental profession and in 1914 it became one of the first prescription products to be sold over the counter.
In the early 1900s, both Mr. Jordan and his wife died, leaving Lambert Pharmacal to their four sons. One son, Gerard, proved to be a business genius. In 1921, after a meeting with the copywriters working on Listerine and a company chemist, Gerard Jordan settled on the idea of "halitosis," the medical term for bad breath, as the central focus for Listerine advertising.
During the 1920s, earnings rose from $115,000 to more than $8 million. By the time of the stock market crash in 1929, 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 remained completely unchanged.
When Mr. Lambert discovered that the halitosis claim was four times more effective than any other, he focused on it exclusively. The company set up an in-house advertising agency, Lambert & Feasley, whose primary responsibility was marketing Listerine. Later, Lambert & Feasley also worked for other, non-competing advertisers, and its billings grew to nearly $20 million during its peak years in the 1960s.
Lambert's ads usually targeted young adults of marriageable age. One featured Edna, whose "case was really a pathetic one. Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry." Edna was depicted kneeling before her bureau, clutching the wedding garments that she would never wear. The ad's headline read: "Often a bridesmaid but never a bride."
In retrospect, Lambert may have succeeded too well. By depicting 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, rival Procter & Gamble Co.'s Scope positioned itself as the feels good, tastes great, smells terrific mouthwash that "had it all."
After a series of mergers in the 1950s, Lambert Pharmaceutical joined with Warner-Hudnut to become Warner-Lambert Co. in 1955, and Listerine was joined by a number of sibling brands in the new company's line-up, including Bromo-Seltzer, Schick and Anahist. Lambert & Feasley continued to play a role in Listerine advertising, but the mergers brought two major shops onto the new company's agency roster: Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn for Bromo-Seltzer, and Ted Bates & Co. for Anahist.
By 1970, the main part of the Listerine product line, which included lozenges, cold tablets, antiseptics and other brand extensions, was handled by J. Walter Thompson Co.
Meanwhile, Warner-Lambert was left with Lambert's legacy of "medicine breath." Although it 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 remained etched deeply in the minds of consumers.
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" continued. Consumers asked, "If mouthwash must taste bad to work well, what use is a good-tasting Listerine?"