#003: The Incredible Story Behind Why We Wear Deodorant

Odorono Deodorant - Within The Curve Of A Woman's Arm Ad Header

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 people smelled like back then.

Despite such a market, you’d be surprised how hard it was to sell deodorant. That was what Edna Grace learned when she started her business. She struggled and fought an uphill battle for sales.

Until about 1920 – when she doubled her business in a year. And she exited 8 years later for a very tidy $3.5 Million ($53MM today).

This paved the way for the $13 Billion deodorant industry to exist today. And it’s why we wear deodorant today.

In this issue of Stories of Successful Ads, 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 advertising.

Sweaty Palms

In 1909, Dr. Abraham D. Murphey walked into a Patent Office to register “Odor-o-no” as a trademark. He invented a liquid that would reduce sweat. In other words, an anti-perspirant.

The story goes that this doctor hated working on hot days. Sweaty palms and delicate surgery aren’t a good mix. So he created Odor-o-no to help manage that problem.

In 1910, Murphey’s daughter, Edna, saw the potential of Odor-o-no. She took a $150 loan ($3,800 today) from her grandfather. She opened an office. And she tried selling Odor-o-no to the public.

It didn’t go well.

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 Odor-o-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.

In 1914, she took on a $50,000 ($1.2MM today) bank loan and hired the J. Walter Thompson (JWT) Agency for a national ad campaign.

It Took Six Years

If you’ve read the story behind how Camel sold 425 million cigarettes in a year or how Cody sold $70 Million in English courses to native English speakers, you probably expect Edna found her success almost overnight.

Nope, even that took time.

From 1914 to 1919, a certain copywriter named James Webb Young wrote her ads. Young focused the ads on fighting the belief that anti-perspirant was unhealthy. The biggest point they made was that it couldn’t be. Because a doctor made it.

That worked for a while. But sales began slowing down.

There are 5 States of Customer Awareness:

  • Unaware
  • 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.

To keep sales coming in, they had to start trying the “Unaware” market.

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.

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.

This entire ad positions Odor-o-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. Female readers got so offended by the ad that they canceled their subscriptions.

But here’s the thing:

It. Worked.

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 Full Ad

Odorono Deodorant - Within The Curve Of A Woman's Arm Full Ad
Odorono Deodorant – Within The Curve Of A Woman’s Arm Full Ad

The Image, Headline and Subheading

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 subheading 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.

Nothing too hard here.

It continues the thought in the headline.

And it introduces a problem: a threat to feminine beauty.

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.

The JWT Agency did a survey. 47% of women didn’t believe they needed deodorant.

So the paragraph has one job: handle the biggest objection. It tells you there’s something you don’t know and promises you a benefit for knowing it.

The second paragraph takes away the blame from your prospect. And pins that blame on nature.

It’s not your fault. The underarm has more active sweat glands. The armpit and clothes makes it hard to evaporate. You did nothing wrong. It’s okay.

This addresses the first part of Odor-o-no’s offer: preventing sweat. Or rather, under-arm wetness.

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.

This subheading hints at a way of being absolutely sure.

This is where it addresses the second part of Odor-o-no’s offer: preventing body odor.

It answers a few objections:

  • “But I’m clean” = Cleanliness doesn’t matter.
  • “But I don’t sweat” = Even without sweating.
  • “But I don’t smell anything” = Oh, but others do.

And “fastidious women” trust a product to prevent both moisture and odor. Who wouldn’t want to be a woman attentive to details?

It introduces Odor-o-no’s unique selling point: made by a doctor. And it combines social proof with instructions on how to use it.

Also, notice the doctor testimonial in the box at the bottom.

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.

This subheading hits very important themes. As human beings, we love simple, we love easy, and we love to be sure.

It leads with being sure. No matter how much sweat, your underarms will be dry. No matter the cause of sweat (exertion, nervousness, weather), your underarms will be dry. And you’ll be more confident for it.

It gives instructions on how easy it is to use. It reminds you what it offers: freedom from the worst of all embarassments – perspiration and moisture.

It then answers a small objection. “Does it wash off when I take a bath?” Nope.

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 severer 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 fully convinced by the sweat…

If you’re not fully convinced by the odor…

How about saving your prettiest dresses?

Even if you are convinced, why not an extra benefit?

Young could have just stopped at sweat and odor. But he added a third benefit too.

A good copywriter leaves as little to chance as possible.

Ever wondered why some ads can be so long? Because the more you talk, the more likely you are to hit that ONE thing that will convert even the most unlikely customer.

A good copywriter also understands the limitations of the craft. A salesperson has the benefit of 2-way communication. They can see their prospect’s face and body language. The prospect can ask them questions. They can adjust to the situation on the fly.

As a copywriter, I do not have that benefit. So I must compensate.

With research, experience, creativity, psychology and language. To do the same, complete selling job in a single ad.

And sometimes that means a 600+ word ad (a 2-page Word document) for antiperspirant like James Webb Young did here.

In exchange, a salesperson can only talk to one person at a time, a copywriter can have their words in front of millions for the entire lifetime of the ad.

Closing Paragraphs

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., 719 Blair Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio.

At all toilet counters in the United States and Canada, 60c and $1.00. Trial size, 30c. By mail postpaid if your dealer hasn’t it.

[List of different mailing addresses by country: Canada, France, Switzerland, England, Mexico and USA.]

A very polite offer to help. An address. The price. List of agents.

Nothing out of the ordinary here.

The Product Itself

It. Was. Horrible.

Odor-o-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 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 Odor-o-no.

But Odor-o-no made its mark by opening up the deodorant industry.

Key Takeaways

In your business…

  • Start with easier buyers. Edna’s business only survived by people agitated enough to try her product. In your business, forget about the mass market at the start. Get the customers who’ll keep your lights on, THEN go big.
  • Your product quality matters. It doesn’t have to be the best thing in the world. Be slightly better than something else and you can get in the game. But you have to get better. What got you in won’t be enough to keep you in.

In your copy…

  • 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.
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