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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By 1927, Murphey saw her company’s sales reach $1 million dollars. In 1929, she sold the company to Northam Warren, the makers of Cutex, who continued using the services of JWT and Young to promote the antiperspirant.

The financial success of Young’s strategy to exploit female insecurity was not lost on competitors. It didn’t take long before other deodorant and antiperspirant companies began to mimic Odorono’s so-called “whisper copy,” to scare women into buying anti-sweat products. (It would take another decade or two before the strategy would be used to get men to buy deodorants and antiperspirants.)

If the 1919 advertisement seemed extreme to some, by the mid 1930s, campaigns were substantially less subtle. “Beautiful but dumb. She has never learned the first rule of long lasting charm,” reads one 1939 Odorono headline, which depicts a morose yet attractive woman who does not wear the anti-sweat product.

Or consider the 1937 Mum advertisement that speaks to a fictitious woman who does not use deodorant:

You’re a pretty girl, Mary, and you’re smart about most things but you’re just a bit stupid about yourself. You love a good time—but you seldom have one. Evening after evening you sit at home alone. You’ve met several grand men who seemed interested at first. They took you out once—and that was that. There are so many pretty Marys in the world who never seem to sense the real reason for their aloneness. In this smart modern age, it’s against the code for a girl (or a man either) to carry the repellent odor of underarm perspiration on clothing and person. It’s a fault which never fails to carry its own punishment—unpopularity.

The reference to men in the Mum advertisement is a pretty quintessential example of the tentative steps taken by deodorant and antiperspirant companies to begin selling their anti-sweat products to men.

At the beginning of the 20th century, body odor was not considered a problem for men because it was a part of being masculine, explains Cari Casteel, a history doctoral student at Auburn University, who is writing her dissertation on the advertisement of deodorants and antiperspirants to men. “But then companies realized that 50 percent of the market was not using their products.”

Initially copy writers for Odorno, Mum and other products “began adding snarky comments at the end of advertisements targeted to women saying, ‘Women, it’s time to stop letting your men be smelly. When you buy, buy two,’” Casteel says.

A 1928 survey of JWT’s male employees is revealing about that era’s opinions of deodorants and antiperspirants.

“I consider a body deodorant for masculine use to be sissified,” notes one responder. “I like to rub my body in pure grain alcohol after a bath but do not do so regularly,” asserts another.


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