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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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This week, we have facts about a Listerine ad campaign on halitosis. Eighty years ago, a magazine spread about bad breath gave rise to the saying: Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.


GELLERMAN: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: And now, the sad story of the gal who was always the bridesmaid, never a bride.

DE LA PENA: She's beautiful and she's talented but she can't figure out why the thing that most every girl wants isn't happening for her, and that's marriage.

GELLERMAN: “Woe is the woman who doesn’t gargle with Listerine,” says Carolyn de la Pena, an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of California-Davis. At least that was the message in a 1932 magazine ad for the mouthwash that revolutionized the industry.

DE LA PENA: There’s a woman. She looks about 20 and she’s peering questioningly into her mirror. There's simply something people won't tell you, and that's the insidious thing of halitosis. And if you don't have the right product – in this case Listerine – then you're going to find yourself at that moment that makes or breaks a young woman's life and it's not going to go well for you.

GELLERMAN: De la Pena says 80 years ago, the Lambert Pharmaceutical Company hit upon its winning concept. Tell stories of people with social problems – people who can't hold jobs or find mates – because they suffer the horrors of halitosis. She says before the 1920’s, ads were positive and upbeat, focusing on how well a product worked or the good name of the manufacturer. But the Listerine bad breath campaign broke new ground because it was the first to play on social fears.

DE LA PENA: By the 1920s, you have people living in these urban environments, the growth of large corporations and the rise of early suburbs, and people finding themselves in spaces where they're tremendously insecure and unaware of the proper social codes.

They talk about halitosis. They create this term, which was a term that was from old medical dictionaries that was not in use. They're actually constructing what good breath is by telling you that your breath should smell like medicine. And two people next to you at the office now smell like medicine and you don't, so get modern.

When I look at things like Listerine pocket packs now I see something that's very similar. It's a way of feeling in control by having a way you're allowed to present your best self to everyone even on a minute's notice. Right? We can sit down with the boss after a big pasta dish and we can still feel like everything's going to go my way because I'm not giving off anything that says “hey, I'm not in control.”

GELLERMAN: The 1920s Listerine campaign worked so well that profits of the Lambert Pharmaceutical Company increased 40 fold in just seven years. Talk about the sweet smell of success. And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.




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