How Advertisers Convinced Americans They Smelled Bad- page 3 | History | Smithsonian
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(Courtesy of the author)

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

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Within a year Odorono sales had jumped to $65,000 and the antiperspirant was being shipped as far as England and Cuba. But after a few years sales had flattened, and by 1919 Young was under pressure to do something different or lose the Odorono contract.

And that’s when Young went radical, and in doing so launched his own fame. A door-to-door survey conducted by the advertising company had revealed that “every woman knew of Odorono and about one-third used the product. But two thirds felt they had no need for [it],” Sivulka says.

Young realized that improving sales wasn’t a simple matter of making potential customers aware that a remedy for perspiration existed. It was about convincing two-thirds of the target population that sweating was a serious embarrassment.

Young decided to present perspiration as a social faux pas that nobody would directly tell you was responsible for your unpopularity, but which they were happy to gossip behind your back about.

His advertisement in a 1919 edition of the Ladies Home Journal didn’t beat around the bush. “Within the Curve of a Woman’s arm. A frank discussion of a subject too often avoided,” announced the headline above an image of an imminently romantic situation between a man and a woman.

Reading more like a lyrical public service announcement than an advert, Young continued:

A woman’s arm! Poets have sung of it, great artists have painted its beauty. It should be the daintiest, sweetest thing in the world. And yet, unfortunately, it’s isn’t always.

The advertisement goes on to explain that women may be stinky and offensive, and they might not even know it. The take-home message was clear: If you want to keep a man, you’d better not smell.

The advertisement caused shock waves in a 1919 society that still didn’t feel comfortable mentioning bodily fluids. Some 200 Ladies Home Journal readers were so insulted by the advertisement that they canceled their magazine subscription, Sivulka says.

In a memoir, Young notes that women in his social circle stopped speaking to him, while other JWT female copy writers told him “he had insulted every woman in America.” But the strategy worked. According to JWT archives, Odorono sales rose 112 percent to $417,000 in 1920, the following year.

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