Last year she couldn’t get a date – now look at her!  Somebody must have told her what her trouble was.

Halitosis explained in Listerine advertisement

“There’s nothing like LISTERINE to check halitosis (unpleasant breath), the unforgivable social fault.”

Bad breath  wasn’t perceived as anything more than a bothersome personal imperfection until Listerine realized that it could help sell mouthwash. The embarrassing condition was labeled Halitosis and sales of Listerine soared.

That single word transformed  halitosis from a bothersome personal imperfection into an embarrassing condition that urgently required Listerine. And it transformed the bottom line for the Lambert Company.

According to the Listerine website, sales went from $115,000 a year in 1921 to $4 million a year by 1927. By the late 1920s, Listerine was the country’s third-largest print advertiser. 

Writing about the success of that marketing campaign for Listerine, the Smithsonian Magazine notes:

The marketing campaign was wildly successful. Even so, Lambert kept trying to sell the public on new uses for Listerine, making claims that it worked as toothpaste, deodorant and a cure for dandruff. But, with their no-longer-quite-so-stinky mouths, the people had spoken: Listerine was best as a mouthwash.

Ultimately, the bad-breath campaign was so successful that marketing historians refer to it as the “halitosis appeal”—shorthand for using fear to sell product. And, while the modern advertising industry is no stranger to creating a problem to sell its solution, Listerine’s medicalization of mouth odors might just be one of the most successful iterations yet. 

Listerine was first formulated in 1879 by Dr. Joseph Lawrence and Jordan Wheat Lambert. It was named after Dr. Joseph Lister, who was the first person to perform an antiseptic surgery.

In 1881 Lambert Pharmaceutical Company bought the rights to the Listerine formula and began producing and marketing it.

The three components of this 1937 advertisement combine to:
1) illustrate the problem;
2)have a writer named Doris Kay explain that problem; and
3) add some selling points.

“Forgotten Women” by Doris Kay, who was probably an advertising copywriter, employs fear to sell the product. She writes:
“I see them every day…dozen of them…women…young women – who are simply forgotten in the social scheme of things.

They are seldom invited out and when men do call they rarely call again. When a frantic cry goes out for a fourth at bridge or when someone is needed to fill in at a dinner party, they are usually the last person the hostess thinks about. Why is it? Not because they are dull; I’ve seen many a witty woman who didn’t get around much. Not because they are plain; some of the prettiest your girls are the least popular. Not because they are fat or old; I’ve known women heavy as trucks and grey as beavers but still greatly sought after. What then is the reason?

Nine times out of then, these forgotten girls are not fastidious about the condition of their breath – and if there is one thing for which others drop a woman or a man it is halitosis (bad breath).

How silly a woman is to permit such a humiliating condition to exist when the fault can usually be remedied so easily and so pleasantly with an agreeable deodorant such as Listerine Antiseptic used twice daily as a mouthwash.”

Listerine didn’t invent “halitosis” but there is a belief that Gerard Lambert, the son of Jordan Wheat Lambert the owner of Warner Phamacal Co.,  read the latin term “halitosis” in a medical journal in the early 1920s and it was adopted as the unique selling proposition in Listerine advertisements.

Again, as in so many advertisements of the 1930s, the artist has signed the drawing.

You may not find that the fear factor is very common in today’s advertisements/commercials/social media – a 30-second commercial is very confining but for those who would employ fear to sell a product, Listerine’s medicalization of mouth odors paves the path to follow.

Here’s a link to a concise graphic that highlights key dates in the growth of Listerine