- Historic Sites
The Golden Age Of Advertising
The twenties and thirties saw a host of new ways to separate customers from their money. The methods have not been forgotten.
April/may 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 3
Listerine was not a new product in 1920. For years it had been merchandised perfunctorily as a general antiseptic. Initially, the three men who transformed Listerine into the marvel of the advertising world—the copywriters Milton Feasley and Gordon Seagrove and the company president, Gerard B. Lambert—did not so much convert the product to a new use as induce the public to discover a new need. After a year of comparatively awkward ads for Listerine as a mouthwash, the copywriters hit upon a winning formula. The picture of a lovely girl introduced a story cryptically entitled “He Never Knew Why.” The hero, a rising young businessman, was spurned by the “luminous” but “charmingly demure” girl of his dreams after a single romantic encounter. He seemed to have every advantage in life—wealth, good looks, charm—but he labored under one insurmountable handicap. He had “halitosis.”
The term halitosis (exhumed from an old medical dictionary) had a scientific sound and took some of the coarseness out of a discussion of bad breath. The ads mimicked the tabloids’ personalinterest stories and advice-to-the-lovelom columns. As the advertising industry’s journal Printers’ Ink reflected in a tribute to Feasley: “He dealt more with humanity than with merchandise. He wrote advertising dramas rather than business announcements—dramas so common to everyday experience that every reader could easily fit himself into the plot as the hero or culprit of its action.”
By 1926 Printers’ Ink went so far as to eulogize Feasley for having transformed behavior patterns. He had “amplified the morning habits of our nicer citizenry—by making the morning mouthwash as important as the morning shower or the morning shave.” But Gerard Lambert was not content to wed the fortunes of his product to one new habit. To maintain advertising momentum, he kept finding new uses for Listerine. Halitosis had hardly become an advertising byword before Lambert began to proclaim Listerine’s virtues as a cure for dandruff. Between 1921 and 1929 the American public also learned the virtues of Listerine as an after-shave tonic, a cure for colds and sore throats, an astringent, and a deodorant. Lambert capitalized on the new fame of his product to market a Listerine toothpaste, which brought even greater financial returns. The Listerine advertising budget mounted from $100,000 in 1922 to $5,000,000 in 1928.
The financial feats of the Listerine campaign held the advertising trade enthralled. Phrases like “the halitosis style,” “the halitosis appeal,” and “the halitosis influence” became standard advertising jargon. Copywriters soon discovered and labeled over a hundred new diseases, including such transparent imitations as “bromodosis” (sweaty foot odors), “homotosis” (lack of attractive home furnishings), “acidosis” (sour stomach), and such inventive afflictions as “office hips,” “ashtray breath,” and “accelerator toe.”
The promoters of Listerine were not the first to discover the sociodrama as an advertising technique—just as they had not pioneered the appeal to social shame or personal fear. In advertisements headlined “Within the Curve of a Woman’s Arm,” the deodorant Odo-ro-no had earlier confronted the threats to romance posed by underarm perspiration. But Listerine purchased larger space in a wider variety of publications. Its expanding appropriations and spectacular profits impressed the business community. The J. Walter Thompson Company summarized the new perception of proper advertising techniques in 1926: “To sell goods we must also sell words . In fact we have to go further: we must sell life .”
In January 1928 a young woman in the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, who described herself as an “inexperienced but struggling enthusiast,” challenged the recent trend of her own agency’s advertising style. Why, she asked in the agency’s confidential newsletter, had the recent layout and copy of the campaign for Fleischmann’s Yeast “deteriorated… to such an extent that they have assumed the appearance of a True Story Magazine insertion?” Was it to appeal to the “minds of those morons … who daily dole out their 2 cents to secure the latest news not only unadulterated but graphically portrayed?” Had the agency lowered itself to producing “tabloid copy for tabloid readers”?
The agency’s response, written by the experienced copywriter Gerald Carson, was immediate and devastating. In so skeptical an age, said Carson, people should welcome “any manifestation of idealism as precious, there is so little of it.” Nevertheless, duty required the agency not to indulge its preferences but to advance the sale of Fleischmann’s Yeast. This duty could be performed only with copy “comprehensible to the plain people.” It might be more pleasant to “advertise exclusively to ‘nice’ people,” but advertising success was “too dependent upon the franchise of the common people for us to cherish a purpose so aristocratic.” Yes, by all means, “tabloid copy for tabloid minds.”