Listerine did not invent bad breath. Human mouths have stunk for millennia, and there are ancient breath fresheners out there you can read up about. But here’s a nice little story of how Listerine advertisements transformed bad breath from an ordinary albeit awkward personal circumstance into an embarrassing medical condition with heavy implications of social suicide. Treatment that very conveniently was sold by the company themselves.
The History Of Listerine
What: Listerine was invented originally as a surgical disinfectant.
Who: Doctor Joseph Lawrence, inspired by the research of Sir Joseph Lister. Oh, who was Joseph Lister? Well, back in the nineteenth century, “hospital disease” (now known as post-operative sepsis infection) was prevalent; that is, mortality rates post-operation were high despite successful surgical procedures. For example, Lister reported in the Male Accident Ward in the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, between 45-50% of amputation cases died from sepsis between 1861 and 1865. It was in this ward he did his experiments – in line with his earlier research on the coagulation of blood and role of blood vessels in the first stage of inflammation, he had already formulated theories and disregarded the concept of miasma (popular, but not obsolete medical concept, stating diseases were caused by “bad air”). By that time, bacteriologist Louis Pasteur had arrived at his theory microorganisms caused fermentation and disease; thus, Lister’s education and speculations that sepsis could be caused by pollen-like dust compelled him to accept Pasteur’s theory. An amalgamation of his previous research and Pasteur’s theory, he began conducting experiments; he soaked dressings with carbolic acid to cover wounds (an effective antiseptic already used as a means of cleansing foul-smelling sewers). The results were dramatic: surgical mortality rates decreased from 45 to 15% between 1865 and 1869 in the Male Accident Ward. And in 1865, Lister was the first surgeon to carry out an operation in a chamber sterilised by pulverising antiseptic into a fine mist of carbolic acid into the air around the operation.
Why: So, here comes in an inspired Joseph Lawrence, who made a unique formulation of surgical antiseptic himself in 1879…and in honour of Sir Joseph Lister, called it LISTERINE®. He formed a partnership with pharmacist Jordan Wheat Lambert, creating Lambert Pharmaceutical Company, producing & selling this disinfectant in operating theatres and bathing wounds.
How: …but it was pretty small market. So, to increase sales, its advertised use became extremely varied: a cure for dandruff, a floor cleaner, a hair tonic, a deodorant, and even a cure for diseases ranging from dysentery to gonorrhoea. Okay, so this did put up company revenues. But the Lamberts had another idea in the 1920s.
They began putting the vaguely medical-sounding term “halitosis” in their advertisements, framing it as a health condition hindering people from being their best. During that era of time, a lot of companies were offering products that could cure every known illness, including catering to the emerging middle class’s social anxieties. I mean, look at this ad below – the sad, unmarried Edna doomed to be a bridesmaid but never a bride just because she has this condition “halitosis”.
This marketing campaign was incredibly successful, and over 7 years, revenues skyrocketed to $8 million. And now, we all know Listerine primarily as the antiseptic for oral health & hygiene. This must be one of the best iterations in history of the modern advertising industry creating a problem to sell its solution. Well played, Lamberts.