How Advertisers Convinced Americans They Smelled Bad

A schoolgirl and a former traveling Bible salesman helped turn deodorants and antiperspirants from niche toiletries into an $18 billion industry

(Courtesy of the author)

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“The exhibition demonstrator could not sell any Odorono at first and wired back [to Murphey to send some] cold cream to cover expenses,” notes a company history of Odorono. 

Luckily, the exposition lasted all summer. As attendees wilted in the heat and sweat through their clothing, interest in Odorono rose. Suddenly Murphey had customers across the country and $30,000 in sales to spend on promotion.

And in reality, Odorono needed some serious help in the marketing department.

Although the product stopped sweat for up to three days—longer-lasting than modern day antiperspirants—the Odorono’s active ingredient, aluminum chloride, had to be suspended in acid to remain effective. (This was the case for all early antiperspirants; it would take a few decades before chemists came up with a formulation that didn’t require an acid suspension.)

The acid solution meant Odorono could irritate sensitive armpit skin and damage clothing. Adding insult to injury, the antiperspirant was also red-colored, so it could also stain clothing—if the acid didn’t eat right through it first. According to company records, customers complained that the product caused burning and inflammation in armpits and that it ruined many a fancy outfit, including one woman’s wedding dress.

To avoid these problems, Odorono customers were advised to avoid shaving prior to use and to swab the product into armpits before bed, allowing time for the antiperspirant to dry thoroughly.

(Deodorants of the era didn’t have the problems with acid formulations, but many, such as Odorono’s main competitor, Mum, were sold as creams which users had to rub into their armpits—an application process many users did not like and which could leave sticky, greasy residues on clothing. In addition, some customers complained that Mum’s early formulation had a peculiar smell.)

Murphey decided to hire a New York advertising agency called J. Walter Thompson Company, who paired her with James Young, a copy writer hired in 1912 to launch the company’s Cincinnati office, where Murphey lived.

Young had once been a door-to-door Bible salesman. He had a high school diploma but no advertising training. He got the copywriter job in 1912 through a childhood friend from Kentucky, who was dating Stanley Resor, a JWT manager who would eventually lead the advertising company. Yet Young would become one of the most famous advertising copy writers of the 20th century, using Odorono as his launching pad.

Young’s early Odorono advertisements focused on trying to combat a commonly held belief that blocking perspiration was unhealthy. The copy pointed out that Odorono (occasionally written Odo-ro-no) had been developed by a doctor and it presented “excessive perspiration” as an embarrassing medical ailment in need of a remedy.


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