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