An antiseptic that could only be used with great care lest it damage the surrounding tissue went on to become America’s must advertised mouthwash. It all stared when physician Joseph Lister realized that fractures that broke through the skin would often become infected, whereas those that did not pierce the skin healed nicely. He also became aware of Louis Pasteur’s work which had shown that rotting and fermentation could occur in the absence of oxygen as along as microorganisms were present. Heat killed the microorganisms but Lister knew that heating a patient was not a viable approach, so he tried some phenol (carbolic acid). It worked, and soon Lister was washing his instruments with phenol. He also developed a sprayer which allowed him to disinfect his operating room. The results were immediate: the mortality rate from amputations dropped from 50 to 15 percent.(1)
However, Lister’s discovery of antisepsis was initially ignored in both England and the United States, in part because he was a doctor working in Glasgow and England and was felt to have a limited outlook. This aspect of science was considered outside his field of expertise. Lister wasn’t the first person to be treated this way by the scientific community. As Broad and Wade report, “George Ohm, the nineteenth-century German who discovered the law of electrical resistance, was a math teacher at the Jesuit Gymnasium in Cologne; his ideas were ignored by scientists at German universities. Mendel’s genetic laws were ignored by professionals in his field for thirty-five years, in part because, as an abbe’ with an experimental plot in his backyard, he seemed to be a mere amatuer, and Louis Pasteur met with violent resistance from doctors when he advanced his germ theory of disease; they regarded him as a mere chemist poaching on their scientific preserves.” (2) So, it took time to convince others. Pasteur and Lister eventually won the battle, persuading the medical profession that germs really did exist.
In the United States, Jordan Wheat Lambert, synthesized a less powerful version and asked Lister if he could use the already famous name, Lister, for the product. Lister agreed and Lambert added the “ine’ suffix which he felt made the product sound more scientific. (3)
Lambert’s Listerine was used for much more than minor surgical procedures. It was a good floor cleaner, an after-shave, a nasal douche, a cure for gonorrhea, and even a scalp treatment for dandruff and baldness. Eventually it was discovered that Listerine was also good at killing oral germs. In 1895 it was marketed to the dental profession and in 1914 became one of the first prescription products to be sold over the counter. But there was no hint for use as a mouth deodorant because at that time there was no such thing as bad breath. Certainly at that time people had various diseases, bad teeth, unpleasant mouth odor, but as advertising scholar James Twitchell points out, “It was not considered socially offensive.” He adds, “Recall that until the 1920s, most Americans bathed only once a week (on Saturday night in anticipation of the Sabbath), and that hair was rarely washed. Soap, still made of animal fats, often smelled worse than body odor!” (4)
Enter Gerard Lambert, one of Jordan’s sons. This marketing genius was looking for an advertising hook, so he asked his company chemist if Listerine was good for bad breath. The chemist showed him a clipping from the medical journal, British Lancet, that discussed halitosis. Gerard asked; what is halitosis? He was told that this was the medical term for bad breath. A light went off in Gerard’s head. “This is something we can hang our hat on!” From Twitchell, “As it turned out, he hung more than his hat on halitosis. He hung the entire company on it. He poured money into putting halitosis into every American mouth. Lambert made a pledge to increase his advertising each month by the same percentage as the increase of his sales. He claimed he would stop this only when sales leveled off. For as long as he owned the company, they never did. From 1922 to 1929 earnings rose form $115,000 to more than $8 million. By the time of the stack market crash, Listerine was one of the largest buyers of magazine and newspaper space, spending more than $5 million –almost the exact amount of yearly profits. In all that time the product’s price, package, and formula had not changed a whit.” (3)
The ad campaign was particularly inventive. “If You Want the Truth- Go to a Child,” Twitchell asks the question,“Has there ever been an ad so deliriously nasty as this? Like a baby robin, the youngster looks up to her caregiver for tenderness and gets a whiff of foul breath instead. The body copy makes clear that here is yet another case of ‘a young woman, who in spite of her personal charm and beauty never seemed to hold men friends.’ The quizzical child, however appears determined to confront whether spinster aunt is ashamed of: Auntie is ‘broadcasting bad breath.’ No wonder men stay away. Dreaded halitosis has gotten in the way of love.” (5) Other ads took this similar tack; “Often a Bridesmaid but Never a Bride,” Halitosis Makes You Unpopular,” Could I be happy with him in spite of that?”
This was one of the first times that advertising really did create a ‘cure.’ But you couldn’t cure something unless you had a disease. “Listerine did not make mouthwash as much as it made halitosis.”(5)
So there you have it- from a potent antiseptic (phenol) to a product (Original Listerine) that an unprecedented 99% of all mouthwash users have tried. One final footnote to this saga; phenol would save thousands of lives, but it would also end many, for scientists quickly discovered that phenol could be converted into the potent explosive trinitrophenol (TNT). (1) Gargle on this thought.
1. Joe Schwarcz, Radar, Hula Hoops, and Playful Pigs, (Toronto, ECW Press, 1999), 58
2. William Broad and Nicholas Wade, Betrayers of the Truth, (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1982), 136
3. James B. Twitchell, Twenty Ads That Shook the World, (New York, Three Rivers Press, 2000), 62
4. James B. Twitchell, Twenty Ads That Shook the World, 63
5. James B. Twitchell, Twenty Ads That Shook the World, 60