Body Odor, Advertising, and Social Blackmail

Laurie and Debbie say:

This extensive article from Smithsonian Magazine, “How Advertisers Convinced Americans They Smell Bad” is not only informative and detailed, it also reads like a “how-to” set of instructions for American advertising for body products for the last 100 years.


A high-school student named Edna Murphey used her father’s own self-invented anti-perspirant (which he invented to keep his hands from sweating during surgery) to control her own body odor. In 1912, she decided to start selling the product. Although there were occasional deodorants on the market since the late 19th century and the first antiperspirant was invented in 1903, in general people controlled body odor by a combination of washing and using perfume to cover it up (a technique which has been around for centuries in many cultures).

Murphey got nowhere selling her problematic product, which had a tendency to eat through your clothes and burn the skin of your armpits, until she hired famous advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, who assigned a salesman named James Young to her product (“Odorono”). Young made some headway by trying to convince people that blocking perspiration was not, in fact, unhealthy (though it almost certainly is), but then …

Young realized that improving sales wasn’t a simple matter of making potential customers aware that a remedy for perspiration existed. It was about convincing two-thirds of the target population that sweating was a serious embarrassment.

Young decided to present perspiration as a social faux pas that nobody would directly tell you was responsible for your unpopularity, but which they were happy to gossip behind your back about.


And from that decision, deodorants and antiperspirants became common household items. What’s far worse is that a form of advertising-as-social-blackmail was born, and is still thriving today. Note the progression:

1) You have a problem which is interfering with your happiness (usually your love life, but sometimes your work success or your friendships);

2) No one will tell you about this problem, because it is essentially intimate and embarrassing.

3) We can help you solve it, without you ever having to have an embarrassing discussion with people you know.

This has been used to sell deodorants and antiperspirants to women, and later to men. It is used for all “feminine hygiene” products (i.e., vaginal deodorants). Basically, it’s used for everything a person might possibly use to keep “clean,” “odor-free,” or “fresh.”

This story also foreshadows the complete unconcern of producers of these products for human health. If the antiperspirant irritates your skin, use it at night so it will dry before it also hurts your clothes. If the vaginal products encourage infections, well, wash more. If the supersoap turns into formaldehyde on your sink shelf, that’s not our fault–it didn’t have formaldehyde when we made it.

Murphey & Young’s playbook is simple, and so is their recipe–having an embarrassing social situation about your body is a catastrophe. If the product damages your health it’s not our problem. And you can solve everything by giving us money.

None of this is new, but it’s useful to have it laid out so clearly.