Advertising is a brilliant tool for creating conventional wisdom.

Listerine, for instance, was invented in nineteenth century as a powerful surgical antiseptic (named after the founding father of antiseptics, Dr. Joseph Lister)

It was later sold, in distilled form, as a floor cleaner and a cure for gonorrhea. An article from 1888 recommends Listerine “for sweaty feet, and soft corns, developing between the toes.” Over the course of the next century, it was marketed as a refreshing additive to cigarettes, a cure for the common cold, and as a dandruff treatment.

But it wasn’t a runaway success until the 1920s, when it was pitched as a solution for “chronic halitosis” – a then obscure medical term for bad breath. The eureka moment  was  when the creator’s son, Gerard Lambert, read the term “halitosis” in a medical journal.  The key was an old Latin word that had long dropped out of general usage and which means “unpleasant breath.” New ads featured forlorn young women  and men, eager for marriage but turned off by their mate’s rotten breath.  “Can I be happy with him in spite of that? ” one maiden asked herself. Until that time, bad breath was not conventionally considered such a catastrophe. But Listerine changed that.

No one is claiming that Listerine invented bad breath. Human mouths have stunk for millennia, and there are ancient breath freshening solutions to prove it. But advertisements for Listerine transformed halitosis from a bothersome personal imperfection into an embarrassing medical condition that urgently required treatment. Treatment that—conveniently—the company wanted to sell.

Inglis-Arkell describes the campaign’s direction “A lot of companies were offering the emerging middle classes ways to cater to their social anxieties. Listerine ran advertisements in many papers talking about the sad, unmarried Edna, who remained single as she watched her friends getting married. It’s not that she wasn’t a great gal! It’s just, she had this condition

As the advertising scholar James B. Twitchell  writes “Listerine did not make mouthwash as much as it made halitosis”. In just seven years, the company’s revenues rose from $ 115,000 to more than $8 million.




“Freakonomics” of S. Levitt and S. Dubner