Hey Stinky, You’re Too Fat, and Your Skin’s Bad Too!

American advertising did not invent body odor, foot rot, bad breath, dandruff, psoriasis, or even acne. These normal, yet annoying, biological occurrences  were around since humans emerged from the primordial ooze. Yet it was primordial ad men during the early twentieth century who made them into plagues of such biblical proportions only medicated pads, soothing creams, and scented sprays applied daily could possibly purge the demons from body and soul. B.O., halitosis, zits, flaking and peeling skin are nothing to sneeze at, but owing to persuasive ad barrages average Americans came to accept that possessing one or all was un-American, or at least unchristian (cleanliness is next to godliness, after all). Madison Avenue’s scourges were curable, but if they went untreated heartbreak (i.e. “The Heartbreak of Psoriasis”) was the ultimate punishment for all transgressions.

“Advertising helps to keep the masses dissatisfied with their mode of life, discontented with ugly things around them,” reported an advertising trade journal in the late forties. “Satisfied customers are not as profitable as discontented ones.” And it was this dubious, though effective, incentive practiced during the post-World War II era (when the booming American economy stimulated by the incredible surges of wartime production) that demanded increased consumption of sundries and medicinals to help prop up prosperity. There was no better way to herd consumers into stores than to elevate the importance of ersatz-hygienic values by instilling widespread insecurity through cautionary ads that attacked odor and smeared blemishes.

However, even this strategic paradigm, so endemic to postwar economics and aesthetics, was not entirely new to post-War consumption. In 1919 an ad campaign for Odo-Ro-No, a deodorant for women, first invoked the initials “B.O,” which stood for body odor. Previously, ads for perfumed powders and salves merely claimed to be sweet smelling, but once the manufacturers of Odo-Ro-No launched their aggressive assault on perspiration and its odiferous gases, offering customers their patented “Armhole Odor Test,” and warning that B.O. would hinder social acceptability, the floodgates opened on insecurity-marketing. And it worked, especially with impressionable female consumers who were the primary advertising targets, but males too, who wanted to be attractive to impressionable females. As a 1950 ad for Libebouy soap featuring one such insecure gent attested, “I’d always thought B.O. was something that happened to other people. Then I realized that B.O. was the reason I wasn’t popular with others.”

B.O. was one of the most damning scolds in American vernacular, and ridding the body of bacterially induced rancid vapors became a national pastime – nay patriotic duty – opening the market for other brand name curatives. Listerine mouthwash, for instance, originally produced as a general antiseptic, was transformed by an advertising campaign that elevated basic bad breath from merely an unpleasant occurrence to major blight. After World War I, when Listerine ads began referring to bad breath as the pseudo-scientific-sounding halitosis, promising “germ-killing action,” the brand immediately captured a niche (that continues today) as the leading cure-all. The most memorable of their ads in the late forties featured the pathetic case of “Edna,” who was “often a bridesmaid but never a bride,” approaching her “tragic” thirtieth birthday unmarried because she suffered from halitosis—that  “you, yourself, rarely know when you have it. And even your closest friends won’t tell you.”

These “quick-tempo socio-dramas in which readers were invited to identify with temporary victims in tragedies of social shame,” wrote the late historian Roland Marchand in Advertising the American Dream, led to a new “school of advertising practice.” Copy-heavy, poorly designed cautionary advertisements (that resembled political manifestos) encouraged consumers to revile everything rotten smelling, from head to crotch to toe. A1950 ad with a silly line drawing of a non-descript fellow underscored the damning point with the line, “Let’s be frank… Is your breath on the agreeable side? Don’t run risks. Before every date use Listerine Antiseptic. It sweetens breath instantly.”

Body odor and bad breath were, however, only two of the biological social pariahs. “Personal hygiene became a crucial piece in the puzzle that upwardly mobile strivers were constantly trying to assemble,” wrote Jackson Lears in Fables of Abundance, A Cultural History of Advertising in America. “Physical processes that had previously been taken for granted began to acquire ominous qualities, as one can see (or smell) in the changing attitude toward odor.”  Combining odor and dirt in ads soon tipped the consumer scales towards an obsession with germ infestation. Lears cites an early ad for Kleenex (the first sanitary disposable tissues) showing a nauseated housewife complaining that washing dirty handkerchiefs was the worst job on earth.

Yet even this aspect of the holy crusade for biological purity had its beginnings one-hundred years before the post-War consumer boom; as early as the 1850s clean hands joined white skin, white bread, and white sugar as emblems of refinement and were cogs in the wheel of body management, a social construct that Lears refers to as “The Perfectionist Project.” This enforced marriage of personal hygiene to regularity, and to efficiency on all strata of the social system underpinned most national consumer advertising.

Laxatives, for example, were promoted in the early 1900s to bring Americans in sync with the complex rhythms of modern life. As work hours conformed to Frederick Winslow Taylor’s time/motion performance systems, daily bodily functions were increasingly scrutinized with regard to the average workday. From this the mantra of “regularity” another element of consumption emerged. Laxative advertisements assailed constipation as a greater menace to society than alcohol, so colonics and enemas were marketed to purge the innards of “intestinal toxicity.”  Kellogg’s Corn Flakes was one such product born of the early individual health obsession. Invented by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, whose Battle Creek hospital and health spa (fictionalized in T. C. Boyle’s Road to Wellville) was dedicated to purifying the inner temple of all toxins, and his toasted flakes were advertised with the same fervency as any modern medical miracle. While that particular approach was no longer effective by the post-War era, the “tastes good and is good for you” ethos remained fairly constant in advertising designed to project such a fundamentally unessential foodstuff as key to notions of health and well being that underscored American commercialism. Incidentally this commercial ethos was rooted in so-called democratic freedoms, which consisted of “ignoring politics and worrying, instead, about the threat of scaly scalp, hairy legs, sluggish bowels, saggy breasts, receding gums, excess weight, and tired blood,” wrote Marshall McLuhan.

Even after the Federal Trade Commission issued statutes about “truth in advertising,” advertising men sought ways to formulate new, harsher truths about real, but decidedly exaggerated maladies. “There’s a womanly offense – greater than body odor or bad breath!” whispered the subhead in an ad for the feminine hygiene product called Zonite. Under the headline “How can he explain to his sensitive young wife?” a photo of somewhat disgusted young man with a comic thought balloon over his head, read “There are some things a husband just can’t mention to his wife!” Meanwhile Zonite was being promoted as the “modern miracle” because no other “douche is so powerful yet safe to tissues.”

In addition to ailments such as these, outward appearances loomed large in the minds of ad men. As early as the turn-of-the-century human fat was deemed a formidable enemy yet oddly enough, although medical books warned against the dangers of obeisity, many doctors claimed fat was an energy reserve. But when the advertising industry embraced the notion that being svelt was a marketable hook for them, “thinning down” became an American mission, and dieting a new religion. Which, in turn, raised the specter of an entirely new and continually replenishing market: American youth.

And this consumerist ideal became the cornerstone of post-War consumption strategies influencing advertising for decades to follow. Even when ads were not aimed at physical restoratives and sundries designed to make “Lovelier Skin in 14 Days” pretty girls and handsome men in ads routinely had the same, white, clean, perky looks. The demographic between ages 14 to 18, known as the teenager, did not become a codified market until the post-war era (when both fashion and sundry marketers sold directly to them through magazines like Seventeen), but the cult of youth (25 and under) was celebrated by the advertising industry since the teens.

By the late 1940s young women had emerged as the quintessential American consumer for such products as toothpastes, deodorants, shampoos, facial lotions, soaps, and feminine products, as well as major appliances (cars were still the province of men, until the mid-fifties, when it was clear that women had a stake in the looks and performance of automobiles). Young women, particularly those who had sacrificed during the war on the home front, were ripe for seduction by even the ugliest advertisements (which were published in abundance). They also believed they deserved the new bounty, to be free from maladies, and look beautiful in the bargain. Advertising wholeheartedly asserted that civilization would abruptly end if women did not actively contribute to the consumer boom that would make America a better place to live, love, and pursue happiness.

(A version of this article appeared in Print Magazine – July /August 2007.)


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