#011: The Bridesmaid With Breath So Bad It Tripled Listerine Sales

The story of Listerine begins with… a surgeon?

Joseph Lister was a British surgeon and is considered the “father of modern surgery”.

As a professor of surgery at the University of Glasgow, Lister read a paper from a French chemist you might have heard of.

Louis Pasteur.

This paper showed food would spoil even without being in open air. And that only three things could kill micro-organisms.

  1. Filtration
  2. Heat
  3. Certain chemicals

You can’t filter or cook a surgery patient (without them staying alive at least). So Lister went for chemicals as a way to kill germs.

And the idea of antiseptics was born in 1865.

Lister’s work reduced infections after surgery, making it A LOT safer. Before this, even if surgery went well, you would probably have an infection and die anyway.

Hence, “father of modern surgery”.

But there is also one more thing he is indirectly responsible for.


Lister In America

In 1876, Lister gave a lecture at the Philadelphia Exposition.

He was teaching American surgeons about the benefits of antiseptic surgery.

In that audience, there was another Joseph.

Joseph Lawrence.

Lister’s recommendation was using carbolic acid to disinfect and kill germs. The problem was carbolic acid was very irritating.

Lawrence wanted to make something less irritating. So his original formula, finished in 1879, had the following ingredients:

  • Menthol (mint) at 0.042%
  • Thymol (thyme) at 0.064%
  • Methyl Salicylate (wintergreen) at 0.06%
  • Eucalyptol (eucalyptus) at 0.092%
  • Ethanol at 26.9%

Don’t know what the other 70% or so is made of. Probably water.

In honor of the man who inspired this idea, Lawrence called this product Listerine.

He marketed it to disinfect cuts, cure dandruff and athlete’s foot, and give relief for insect bites. But business didn’t go so well.

In 1881, two years after inventing Listerine, Lawrence licensed his formula. He licensed it to a man at a drug store where he bought his ingredients.

The owner of this drug store was Jordan Wheat Lambert, founder of…

The Lambert Pharmacal Company

Jordan Wheat Lambert had four sons.

Of the four, we know about two. Marion and Gerard Lambert.

Marion was the responsible one who took care of the family business.

Gerard was the overly ambitious one who wanted to make a name for himself.

Gerard wanted to go out and get rich on his own. He somehow blew through his $300,000 ($7.7MM today) inheritance.

And went even further, getting $700,000 ($18MM today) in debt.

In 1919 or 1920, Gerard came back to the family business. And he was desperate to increase profits.

He cut a few manufacturing costs, saved some money on taxes and pushed to start advertising Listerine.

Gerard hired a pair of copywriters. Milton Feasley and Gordon Seagrove.

Together with Marion, all four sat down and started brainstorming advertising ideas.

Marion repeatedly suggested Listerine be marketed as a cure for bad breath. Gerard wasn’t happy about that.

Like in the story of why we wear deodorant, it was VERY impolite to talk about bodily functions or smells in the 1920s.

It seems Marion was ready for this, so he brought in the company chemist as backup.

According Gerard:

I asked him if Listerine was good for bad breath.

He excused himself for a moment and came back with a big book of newspaper clippings.

He sat in a chair and I stood looking over his shoulder. He thumbed through the immense book.

“Here it is, Gerard. It says in this clipping from the British Lancet that in cases of halitosis . . .”

I interrupted, “What is halitosis?”

“Oh,” he said, “that is the medical term for bad breath.”

[The chemist] never knew what had hit him. I bustled the poor old fellow out of the room. “There,” I said,” is something to hang our hat on.”

The story is a little different from how Gordon retells it, but the basic point remains.

Halitosis was the big opportunity.

This led to a series of ads that, like the deodorant story, typically targeted women. But instead of body odor being an attack on femininity, halitosis was an attack on a woman’s dating prospects.

These ads began in 1924. And according to tax records, here are the sales revenues of each year:

  • 1923 = $233,552 ($3.3MM today)
  • 1924 = $313,672 ($4.4MM today)
  • 1925 = $640,100 ($8.8MM today)
  • 1926 = $1,898,996 ($26MM today)

But strangely enough, it looks like Gerard abandoned this winning idea. He promoted Listerine for sore throats, colds and other uses. He started Listerine toothpaste which soon failed.

Sales figures kept climbing up and peaked at $4MM ($58MM today), but that was because Gerard spent very aggressively on advertising.

He only returned to making the halitosis appeal in 1928 when sales slowed down. Then The Great Depression hit in 1930 and not even halitosis could bump sales again.

Onto the ads…

The First Bridesmaid – Eleanor (1924)

Listerine Mouth Wash Often A Bridesmade Never A Bride 1924 Ad Milton Feasley Gordon Seagrove Eleanor Sad Woman
Poor Eleanor

The first ad in this campaign featured Eleanor.

But I won’t be analysing this 1924 ad.

It is very similar to the 1925 version. The 1925 version with Edna performed a lot better. And I only believe in studying the best performers in any campaign.

Still, I’ve added it here for you to see the differences between the two.

The More Famous Bridesmaid – Edna (1925)

Listerine Mouth Wash Often A Bridesmade Never A Bride 1925 Ad Milton Feasley Gordon Seagrove Edna Sad Woman

The Image & Layout

Size grabs attention. And this ad takes this idea to its extreme by a full-page image.

Remember that Listerine was heavily aiming at women with its halitosis appeal.

So here we have a full-page image of a woman looking sad. Guaranteed to catch readers out of concern and wanting to know why.

The copy was printed across in an unusual style to make things visually interesting.

The Headline

Yes, this ad campaign is where the phrase comes from.

It’s not the first time ever this was said. Milton and Gordon, the copywriters, probably got it from the 1917 song of the same name.

But this is where this phrase came into everyday use.

And I don’t think there’s better proof of its power than the fact we still use some variation of this phrase 100 years later.

This headline is a very elegant way of describing why the woman in the image is so sad.

It captures the fear of being alone. It hints she’s not married because there is something wrong with her.

What is wrong?

You’ll need to read the ad to find out.

The Opening Paragraphs

EDNA’s case was really a pathetic one. Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry. Most of the girls of her set were married—or about to be. Yet not one possessed more grace or charm or loveliness than she.

And as her birthdays crept gradually toward that tragic thirty-mark, marriage seemed farther from her life than ever.

She was often a bridesmaid but never a bride.

These paragraphs are just continuing the thought and premise in the image and headline.

But notice they don’t say anything about why Edna was in this situation.

The Fourth Paragraph

That’s the insidious thing about halitosis (unpleasant breath). You, yourself, rarely know when you have it. And even your closest friends won’t tell you.

“She’s single because of bad breath? Well, good thing I don’t have bad breath.”

You don’t know that.

“Nobody has said anything.”

Not even your closest friends will tell you.

“Wait, what?”

And the seed of doubt is planted.

The Fifth Paragraph

Sometimes, of course, halitosis comes from some deep-seated organic disorder that requires professional advice. But usually—and fortunately—halitosis is only a local condition that yields to the regular use of Listerine as a mouth wash and gargle. It is an interesting thing that this well-known antiseptic that has been in use for years for surgical dressings, possesses these unusual properties as a breath deodorant.

Here it points out the two causes of halitosis.

And quickly dives into Listerine being the solution.

It highlights that Listerine is well-known and has a history of medical use.

But the writer knows that’s a bit irrelevant. So he frames it as an “interesting thing” that it also has “unusual properties” as a breath deodorant.

The Sixth Paragraph (Mechanism)

It halts food fermentation in the mouth and leaves the breath sweet, fresh and clean. Not by substituting some other odor but by really removing the old one. The Listerine odor itself quickly disappears. So the systematic use of Listerine puts you on the safe and polite side.

Here the copy explains the mechanism of Listerine. It describes exactly how it freshens breath.

And it gives the (more powerful) social benefit of using it.

The Call To Action

Your druggist will supply you with Listerine. He sells a lot of it. It has dozens of different uses as a safe antispetic and has been trusted as such for half a century. Read the interesting little booklet that comes with every bottle.
Lambert Pharmacal Company, Saint Louis, U. S. A.

A very unusual call-to-action.

It is a very soft sell. It doesn’t tell you to go buy it, just that your druggist will have it for you to get it.

It uses social proof by saying your druggist sells a lot of it.

It builds credibility by pointing out the safety in its many uses and long history.

I couldn’t find any information on the booklet, so I can’t say what that’s about.

Key Takeaways

In your business…

  • Licensing is a viable business strategy. Many entrepreneurs want to create a product from scratch. Sometimes, you’d be smarter to license and market someone else’s product to start. Then maybe create one later. Look at Netflix.
  • Don’t try to be everything to everybody. Listerine has many uses as an antiseptic. The most successful one is mouthwash, but Gerard kept trying to push it for many other uses. What he should have done is keep Listerine as a mouthwash and created other brands for its other uses.

In your copy…

  • Know your product intimately. It is no exaggeration to say the house of Listerine mouthwash was built on halitosis. A single word in a book hidden on the shelf of a company chemist. This is why it is incredibly valuable to do in-depth research and to speak to experts related to the product.
  • Explain the mechanism, the how of the problem and the solution. In this ad, we learn how the problem of halitosis happens (fermentation of food particles in the mouth). We also learn how Listerine solves it (stops fermentation and removes, not replaces, the odor). This makes your copy a lot more convincing to the prospect.
  • Tap into an emotion with a story. This ad isn’t about fixing bad breath. It’s about the fear of being unmarried and alone. It’s the fear of missing out. It’s about Edna and Eleanor showing those fears. And it’s connecting those two fears to bad breath. Then by solving bad breath, it is implying Listerine will solve those too.
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