Modern soap formulations first appeared in the mid-19th century. By substituting vegetable oils for animal fats, soap makers were able to make soap less perishable and by molding the product into cakes, they enhanced its marketability. At about the same time, soap makers began to develop brand names to distinguish their lines of soap from those of their competitors.
The high profit margin in soap marketing encouraged producers to experiment with advertising to develop regional, then national markets. The soap industry was among the first to employ advertising as a regular part of doing business.
In 1879, Procter & Gamble Co. introduced the name Ivory for its White soap. Employing simple slogans such as "It floats" and "99 and 44/100% pure," P&G reached sales of 30 million cakes of soap each year by 1890. During the 1880s, although public discussion of such personal matters as cleanliness was still considered a questionable commercial practice, Pears' soap began running page ads using arresting illustrations and provocative copy such as "Good morning, have you used Pears' soap?" that made a direct appeal to consumers as individuals.
During the 1880s and 1890s, Enoch Morgan's Sons, working with the American humorist Artemus Ward, marketed Sapolio soap via jingles and ads that made the brand synonymous with "Spotless Town."
By the late 1890s, Dr. Woodbury's, Cuticura, Wool and Fairy soaps had joined in the clamor urging Americans to buy soap. Woodbury created the "Facial Purity League," offering buttons to all of its "members." B.T. Babbitt pioneered the sales device of the premium by ascribing value to wrappers of Babbitt's Best soap; 25 wrappers entitled the purchaser to a picture. Rebates and fund-raising, introduced by Wool soap in 1898, earned a penny per remitted wrapper for the Women's Christian Temperance Union.
As advertising techniques advanced, the soap industry began to reshape American attitudes toward personal hygiene in general and the importance of the regular use of soap in particular.
Soap manufacturers were not alone in their efforts to influence the everyday grooming behaviors of Americans. By the 1920s, toiletries were among the most-promoted category of commodities sold in the U.S., second only to food in advertising revenue. Lambert Pharmacal brought into vogue the practice of gargling by introducing consumers to "halitosis," a condition first described in ads in 1921. Lambert Pharmacal's Listerine was the recommended treatment.
Originally marketed as a disinfectant, Listerine was transformed into an everyday necessity by the Lambert Pharmacal's house agency, Lambert & Feasley. A 1923 ad summed up the brand's negative positioning in the headline "Always a bridesmaid, but never a bride."
In 1921, Lambert Pharmacal's annual earnings were $115,000, but by the end of the decade, they skyrocketed to more than $8 million.
Shortly after Listerine advertising gave Americans pause over the possible consequences of bad breath, Lever Brothers' ad agency Ruthrauff & Ryan introduced the term "B.O.," or "body odor," in its campaigns for Lifebuoy soap. The idea that perspiration might offend was not new; small-space ads for underarm deodorants Mum and Odorono had appeared in the back pages of women's magazines since the turn of the 20th century. But beginning in the 1920s, it became commonplace to find full-page testaments to "The Most Humiliating Moment in My Life" in popular magazines of the day.
The "negative appeal" of these advertising approaches may have had much to do with the meteoric rise of toiletry consumption. According to various ads, people who neglected personal hygiene risked loss of their jobs, their chance at romance, the respect of their colleagues, their reputations and the love of their offspring. Deodorant soaps, sprays, antiperspirants, mouthwashes, foot powders, breath fresheners, scented shampoos and douches began to play a prominent role in Americans' daily lives.
Specialty formulas also found a niche. Lysol ads of the 1920s, for instance, warned women not to experiment with such a delicate matter as feminine hygiene, but to rely on Lysol, a product of Lehn & Fink Corp., whose advertising was handled by Lennen & Mitchell. By the end of the century, combined spending to purchase products designed to alter body aromas reached more than $3.5 billion each year.
After World War I, Americans began to adopt the habit of regularly brushing their teeth. The first commercial dentifrices were marketed and consumed mainly to cure pyorrhea (inflammation of the gums) rather than to beautify the teeth. Between 1914 and 1931, however, the volume of U.S. advertising for toothpastes and powders increased thirtyfold. Using brush and paste each day to whiten, brighten, freshen and clean one's teeth became not merely fashionable, but also a part of normal oral dental hygiene.
The advertising of toiletries was not without controversy, however. During the 1920s, for example, best-selling Pebeco toothpaste enticed purchasers by offering to cure "acid mouth," described in ads as a potentially debilitating condition. The campaigns promised scientific proof of the effectiveness of Pebeco toothpaste against "acid mouth," and a packet of litmus paper was provided with every tube purchased. Yet toxic ingredients in Pebeco, if ingested, proved fatal, which provoked a consumer outcry.
The soap campaign
One of the more significant reactions against claims made by toiletry promoters came in the form of an unprecedented cooperative advertising campaign launched by soap producers in the 1927. The Cleanliness Institute was created specifically to counter the threat to soap consumption posed by surging sales of deodorants and various cosmetics. Those products masked rather than removed deficiencies in hygiene, and soap makers feared ads for those other products could make bathing seem unnecessary to consumers. The booming market for make-up?in particular the growing sales of cold creams recommended for removing it?threatened to make soap seem redundant or obsolete.
The Cleanliness Institute set out to promote regular, frequent washing with soap. Print ads and radio spots produced by the institute resembled the individual marketers' efforts to sell specific brands, but the overall message?the importance of soap and water as the basis of personal hygiene?took precedence over mention of brand names.
The campaign reached classrooms across America in the form of textbooks, posters, fliers and other materials designed to instruct teachers on how to instill in schoolchildren the desire to be washed. The institute produced news releases, expert advice on hygiene, scripts for radio spots and prewritten speeches to be delivered to community groups, corporate interests, state and local public health agencies, medical societies, and nursing and education associations. It also published the Cleanliness Journal, which was sent free of charge to social workers, health officials and civic leaders.
Acting in concert, the soap industry envisioned the day when the habit of washing and the consumption of soap might be so ingrained in Americans that it would take on the appearance of a biological function. As Roscoe C. Edlund, director of the institute, observed in 1930, "The business of cleanliness is big business."