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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However the potential profit was not lost on everybody:  “I feel there is a market for deodorants among men that is practically unscratched. The copy approach is always directed at women. Why not an intelligent campaign in a leading men’s magazine?”

“If someone like Mennen’s got out a deodorant, men would buy it. Present preparations have a feminine association most men only shy at.”

According to Casteels research, the first deodorant for men was launched in 1935, put in black bottle and called Top-Flite, like the modern, but unrelated golf ball brand.

As with the products for women, advertisers preyed on men’s insecurities: In the Great Depression of the 1930s men were worried about losing their job.  Advertisements focused on the embarrassment of being stinky in the office, and how unprofessional grooming could foil your career, she says.

 “The Depression shifted the roles of men,” Casteel says. “Men who had been farmers or laborers had lost their masculinity by losing their jobs. Top Flite offered a way to become masculine instantly—or so the advertisement said.” To do so, the products had to distance themselves from their origins as a female toiletry.

For example, Sea-Forth, a deodorant sold in ceramic whiskey jugs starting in the 1940s, “because the company owner Alfred McKelvy said he ‘couldn’t think of anything more manly than whiskey,’” Casteel says.

And so anti-sweat products became a part of America’s daily grooming routine for both men and women. A multitude of products flooded the marketplace, with names like, Shun, Hush, Veto, NonSpi, Dainty Dry, Slick, Perstop and Zip—to name just a few. With more companies invested in anti-sweat technology, the decades between 1940 and 1970 saw the development of new delivery systems, such as sticks, roll-ons (based on the ball-point pen), sprays and aerosols, as well as a bounty of newer, sometimes safer, formulations.

Naysayers might argue that western society would have eventually developed its dependence on deodorants and antiperspirants without Murphey and Young, but they certainly left their mark in the armpits of America, as did the heat of New Jersey’s summer of 1912.


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