The word “halitosis” is a household term which everyone knows means bad breath. But did you know that the word has been around for less than a hundred years, and was invented not by the medical field, but by advertisers?
Back in the 1920s, people didn’t worry about body odor as much as they do now. They didn’t bathe nearly as often, they didn’t wear deodorant, and some bodily smells weren’t necessarily considered socially catastrophic. A family antiseptic company called Listerine was able to increase its revenue from $115,000 to $8 million over the course of seven years by helping to change that.
Listerine had been around since the 1880s, marketed as a household cleaner, a medical antiseptic, and a treatment for gonorrhea, among many other uses. Forty years later, the company’s owner and his son came up with the brilliant idea to look up a fancy latin word for bad breath that sounds like a medical condition and then market it as though it’s an actual diagnosable disease that is crippling everyone’s social life. They ran advertisements telling wives that their halitosis was making them unappealing to their husbands, telling husbands that their halitosis was making their wives not want to kiss them, telling young women that they’d remain unmarried and unwanted forever if they didn’t cure their “unexcusable” condition with Listerine, even telling mothers that their breath may be grossing out their own children.
And it worked. People began throwing their money at this company, suddenly desperate to cure a horrible medical condition that they’d only just found out was a thing. By manufacturing demand for their product using artificially instilled shame and fear, Listerine made a fortune.
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