Copywriting Examples #03:
The History of Deodorant: Edna Murphey and Odo-ro-no Deodorant
In this #03 issue, you’re going to discover the fascinating story of deodorant. And you’ll feel eternally grateful for how this one ad made us all smell much better.
Because in the early 1900s, the average family bathed once a week. Usually on Saturday. The entire family taking turns in the same bathwater. In an age where nearly everything needed manual labor to get done.
I’ll let you imagine what most people smelled like back then.
Despite such a market, you’d be surprised how hard it was to sell deodorant.
That’s what Edna Murphey learned the hard way when she started her business. She struggled and fought an uphill battle for sales. Until about 1920 – when the ad I’m going to share with you on this page doubled her business in a year. And she exited 8 years later for a very tidy $3.5 Million ($53MM today).
The ad paved the way for the $13 Billion deodorant industry to exist today. And this bit of deodorant history is the reason you put on deodorant this morning.
In this issue of Copywriting Examples, I’m going to share how she did it. I’m going to show you the exact ad she used. And I will give you lessons you can apply to your own business and ads today.
Edna Murphey and Odo-ro-no Deodorant
In 1909, a man named Dr. Abraham D. Murphey walked into a Patent Office to register “Odor-o-no” (also frequently spelled Odorono or Odo ro no or Odo-ro-no) as a trademark. The story goes that this doctor hated working on hot days. Sweaty palms and delicate surgery aren’t a good mix. So he created Odo-ro-no to help manage that problem.
In 1910, Edna (Dr. Abraham’s daughter) saw the potential of Odo-ro-no as a deodorant and anti-perspirant. She took out a $150 loan (about $4,000 today) from her grandfather. She opened an office. And she tried selling Odo-ro-no deodorant to the public.
Wish I could tell you the rest was deodorant history, but it didn’t go well. At all.
Almost every bottle she sent to stores got returned. She couldn’t make rent and had to move her business home. The only thing that kept her going was the slight success she got from agent sales out of town.
She had the bright idea to try selling Odo-ro-no in Atlantic City. It was a popular summer destination at the time. And hot weather means sweaty people. She sent bottles there for sale. Agents complained that they weren’t selling and asked that she send cold cream instead. Somehow, she convinced them to keep going all summer.
From Atlantic City, Edna managed to get a few interested dealers from across the country. She started advertising in newspapers. If she had an agent in the city, she would list them. If she did not, she would offer a chance to become one.
After some success, in 1914, she took on a $50,000 bank loan ($1.2MM today) and hired the J Walter Thompson agency (a New York agency, now named Wunderman Thompson) for a national ad campaign.
James Webb Young and J Walter Thompson
Nope, even that took time.
From 1914 to 1919, Young wrote all the ads for Edna Murphey and Odo-ro-no. Young focused the ads on fighting the belief that anti-perspirant was unhealthy. The biggest sales argument he made was that anti-perspirant couldn’t be unhealthy. Why? Because a doctor made it.
That worked for a while. But sales began slowing down.
To explain why, we need to discuss a concept from Eugene Schwartz called…
The 5 Stages of Customer Awareness
In his must-read book Breakthrough Advertising, Schwartz shares that customers (and overall markets) go in 5 stages:
- Problem Aware
- Solution Aware
- Product Aware
- Most Aware
Edna had most of the “Problem Aware” people. People who were self-conscious that they smelled bad or sweat too much and could be convinced to buy her product.
Indeed, the J Walter Thompson agency did a poll on women. At the time, 59% of women didn’t use any form of deodorant or antiperspirant and 47% felt they didn’t need to do so.
To keep sales coming in, they had to start trying the “Unaware” market. The same 59% of women who don’t use deodorant and/or feel they didn’t need to.
So they stopped trying to convince people Odor-o-no was a good solution to body odor.
And they started trying to convince people that body odor was a problem.
Within The Curve of A Woman’s Arm (1919)
How do you convince someone body odor is a problem?
You tell them they are offending others… and that other people are too polite to say it to their face.
One small tweak and James Webb Young made deodorant history.
This entire ad positions Odo-ro-no to meet a basic human need: the need for social acceptance and belonging. And pretty convincingly because smell is such a visceral thing.
This ad ran in women’s magazines. And people. Got. Offended.
A famous example is the Ladies Home Journal. About 200 women got so offended by the ad that they canceled their subscriptions.
But here’s the thing:
Sales rose 112% to $417,000 ($5.4MM today) over the next year. And this ad set the tone for the next 30+ years of deodorant advertising.
The Ad That Set Deodorant History
The Image, Headline and Subheading
(caption) There isn’t a girl who can’t have the irresistible, appealing loveliness of perfect daintiness
(headline) Within The Curve of A Woman’s Arm
(subheading) A frank discussion of a subject too often avoided
Keep this in mind as we go through: This ad is for women who don’t know they have a body odor problem. And this is a time when talking about bodily functions was not polite.
So instead of being direct in the headline, it does a dance to slowly pull you in:
- The romantic couple to catch your eye
- The promise of “irresistible, appealing loveliness of perfect dainteness” in the caption
- The poetic description of the underarm
The sub-heading teases with speaking honestly about something most people don’t. It could be a headline by itself. But remember, this was a taboo topic at the time.
The Opening Paragraph
A woman’s arm! Poets have sung of its grace; artists have painted its beauty.
It should be the daintiest, sweetest thing in the world. And yet, unfortunately, it isn’t, always.
There is an old offender in this quest for perfect daintiness – an offender which we ourselves may be ever so unconscious, but which is just as truly present.
This is a very simple lead. Just a continuation of the headline.
After the first line, James Webb Young starts a gradual transition into the problem.
The First Section
Shall we discuss it frankly?
Many a woman who says, “No, I am never annoyed by perspiration.” does not know the facts – does not realize how much sweeter and daintier she would be if she were entirely free from it.
Of course, we aren’t to blame because nature has so made us that the perspiration glands under the arms are more active than anywhere else. Nor are we to blame because the perspiration which occurs under the arm does not evaporate as readily as from other parts of the body. The curve of the arm and the constant wearing of clothing have made normal evaporation there impossible.
To repeat, the J Walter Thompson agency did a survey. 47% of women polled didn’t believe they needed deodorant.
So Young jumps right into handling the biggest objection. He frames this objection as a lack of not just knowledge, but facts. And unawareness of the key benefit of Odo-ro-no deodorant.
The second paragraph is the “It’s not your fault” section that takes blame for the problem away from the reader. Also used in Copywriting Examples Issue #02 (Sherwin Cody), this is a mainstay in many ads that cover problems that would be considered embarrassing.
It takes the blame (and shame) away from the reader and pins the problem on nature. And explains the mechanism (the “how”) for under-arm wetness: overactive perspiration glands and the curve of the arm (a.k.a. the armpit) plus clothing to keep it from evaporating.
This is also the first part of the Odo-ro-no deodorant selling point: preventing sweat, specifically under-arm wetness.
The Second Section
Would you be absolutely sure of your daintiness?
It is in the chemicals of the body, not uncleanliness, that cause odor. And even though there is no active perspiration – no apparent moisture – there may be under the arms an odor unnoticed by ourselves, but distinctly noticeable to others. For it is a physiological fact that persons troubled with perspiration odor seldom can detect it themselves.
Fastidious women who want to be absolutely sure of their daintiness have found that they could not trust to their own consciousness; they have felt the need of a toilet water which would insure them against any of this kind of underarm unpleasantness, either moisture or odor.
To meet this need, a physician formulated Odorono—a perfectly harmless and delightful toilet water. With particular women Odorono has become a toilet necessity which they use regularly two or three times a week.
Next, we come to the second selling point of Odo-ro-no: body odor.
James Webb Young quickly shoots down a few objections:
- “But I’m clean” = Cleanliness doesn’t matter. It’s about the chemicals of the body.
- “But I don’t sweat” = It happens even if you aren’t actively sweating or feeling moisture.
- “But I don’t smell anything” = It is a physiological fact that you can’t.
While explaining the mechanism for body odor.
Young then uses social proof in saying “fastidious women” trust a product to prevent both moisture and odor. Who wouldn’t want to be fastidious (attentive to detail)?
It smoothly transitions to introducing Odo-ro-no with one of its strongest selling points: being made by a doctor. It also uses more social proof by saying how some women are reliant on Odo-ro-no and how they are using it.
The Third Section
So simple, so easy, so sure
No matter how much the perspiration glands may be excited by exertion, nervousness, or weather conditions, Odorono will keep your underarms always sweet and naturally dry. You then can dismiss all anxiety as to your freshness, your perfect daintiness.
The right time to use Odorono is at night before retiring. Pat it on the underarms with a bit of absorbent cotton, only two or three times a week. Then a little talcum dusted on and you can forget all about that worst of all embarassments—perspiration odor or moisture. Daily baths do not lessen the effect of Odorono at all.
Here, James Webb Young appeals to our innate desire for ease (so simple, so easy) and certainty (so sure).
He “widens” the work of Odo-ro-no by mentioning the different causes of sweating and how it’ll still keep your underarms dry AND “always sweet.” He then gives you an emotional benefit that you’ll get from it: confidence.
Next, Young goes into usage instructions. Specifically, how simple and easy it is to use (remember the subheading) and quickly answers one small objection (“Does it wash off when I take a bath?”).
In this section, we also have study results from a research authority on Odo-ro-no’s safety:
Dr. Lewis B. Allyn, head of the famous Westfield Laboraties, Westfield, Massachusetts, says: “Experimental and practical tests show that Odorono is harmless, economical and effective when employed as directed, and will injure neither the skin nor the health.”
The Last Section
Does excessive perspiration ruin your prettiest dresses?
Are you one of the many women who are troubled with excessive perspiration, which ruins all your prettiest blouses and dresses? To endure this condition is so unnecessary! Why, you need never spoil a dress with perspiration! For this sufferer trouble Odorono is just as effective as it is for the more subtle form of perspiration annoyance. Try it tonight and notice how exquisitely fresh and sweet you will feel.
If you’re not convinced by the sweat…
If you’re not convinced by the odor…
How about this EXTRA benefit of saving your prettiest dresses?
A good copywriter leaves as little to chance as possible. Being stuck behind a pencil, typewriter or keyboard, we don’t have the advantage of 2-way communication a salesperson does. A salesperson can ask and answer questions. They can see body language and hear tonality.
But copywriters? We don’t.
So, a good copywriter compensates with research, creativity, psychology and language… to do the same selling job as a salesperson in a single ad.
And with space left on the page, James Webb Young fills in another benefit to help completely convince the reader to buy Odo-ro-no.
Plus, this section honestly reads like a small ad that used to be run separately… and is now tacked on to round out the ad.
Call To Action
If you are troubled in any unusual way or have had any difficulty in finding relief, let us help you solve your problem. We shall be so glad to do so. Address Ruth Miller, The Odorono Co., 950 Blair Avenue, Cincinatti, Ohio.
Your dealer can supply you. Go to him today and get a bottle of Odorono of the size you prefer. Regular sizes, 60c and $1.00. Trial size, 30c.
A very polite offer to help (as this is an embarrassing problem). An address. The price.
Nothing much to dissect here.
The Product Itself
It. Was. Horrible.
Odo-ro-no was aluminium chloride in an acid solution. It was bright red. It would stain easily. It was very irritating to the skin. The acid damaged clothes. And there were reports of women getting ill from using it.
I’m a firm believer that no amount of copy can save a bad product. And this was true for Odor-o-no.
Edna Murphey sold the company in 1928. She sold it to Northam Warren and soon quit over differences in how it should be run. She was lucky that she quit at the right time.
Over the next 30 years, Odor-o-no slowly died.
Arrid came into the picture. They took Odor-o-no’s lunch with a better product. And they never bounced back from that.
In 1960, it was sold to Unilever. Unilever retired it forever. And so ends the story of Odo-ro-no. Forever marked in deodorant history.
Key Takeaways – Copywriting Examples #03
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- Make a list of all objections a prospect might have. For each item on that list, think up a counter.
- Understand the State of Awareness of your market. You don’t write the same ad for people at different awarenesses. If they are unaware, convince them of a problem. If they have a problem, convince them of a solution. If they have a solution, convince them your product is the best one. If they want your product, make them an offer.
- If the topic is taboo, BE CAREFUL. We are much more open about so many things than people in the 1900’s. But we are also a Twitter hashtag away from an expensive scandal.
- Bushak, Lecia. “A Brief History Of Bathing: The Importance Of Hygiene, From Ancient Rome’s Sophisticated Showers To The Modern Day.” Medical Daily, 11 Dec. 2015, https://www.medicaldaily.com/brief-history-bathing-importance-hygiene-ancient-romes-sophisticated-showers-modern-364826.
- J. Walter Thompson Company (Part 1) | David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. https://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/collections/creators/corporations/jwt1. Accessed 15 Aug 2021.
- “J. Walter Thompson Company. Account Files, 1885-2008 and Undated Bulk 1920-1995 – Archives & Manuscripts at Duke University Libraries.” David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, https://archives.lib.duke.edu/catalog/jwtaccountfiles/. Accessed 15 Aug 2021.
- Woolley, E. M. (1923). How much does it take to advertise? Sales Management, 5(11), 939-940, 1030.
- Sivulka, J. (2008). Odor, oh no! Advertising deodorant and the new science of psychology, 1910 to 1925. Journal of Macromarketing, 28, 212-220.