Tag Archives: body odor

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.

Pee-Yew! The Politics of Body Odor

Laurie and Debbie, happy to be blogging again, say:

In the week and a half that we haven’t been blogging, we’ve come across a lot of interesting links, most of which we’ll get to in a later post. The first one we found came from fattest, who pointed out how Unilever is trying to get rich(er) by making Asians unhappy about their own body odor:

Russell Taylor, global vice-president for Axe, the Unilever-made deodorant marketed as Lynx in Britain, said that no one had yet found a way of making Asians self-conscious about body odour. “Asia is a market we have never really cracked. They don’t think they smell, but people everywhere smell,” he said.

The trick is to tailor …. paranoia to local sensitivities. To the company’s relief, risque British humour works well among young Indian men and Unilever is using its Lynx advertisements to good effect, but even so, it has to be careful.

“We tailor some of the media to private channels [such as mobile phones] so young guys are not subjected to watching things in front of their families,” Mr Taylor said.

Japan is an even more difficult prospect and the company has been forced to create commercials for the local market as Japanese teenagers don’t meet in as casual a manner as in the West. Mr Taylor said: “We showed a prearranged date and told a story. If we showed something too brash, people would ask, ‘How is that relevant to me?’”

Sophisticated multicultural diverse capitalism at its, ahem, best?

We don’t think we have to say very much about this campaign. Most of our readers have understood for a long time that the cleanliness industry is predicated on making us believe that things are either wrong with us or dangerous; overselling deodorant is not as socially dangerous as overselling antibacterial products or hair remover for preteen girls, but it’s noxious enough.

The article got us to talking, however, about body odor (not a commonly discussed topic).

As is clear from the article and the comments, body odor has enormous racial (and racist) implications. Some ethnic or racial groups perceive themselves as “cleaner” than other ethnic groups–which usually means that they believe they have less natural body odor than the other groups (and better hygiene). It’s perfectly possible that we’re evolutionary wired to distrust people who smell different from us. One function of deodorant is to minimize or eliminate any differences between people (which made Laurie point out with amusement that deodorant could be seen as a tool for social change, because it could be minimizing hostile reactions to other people’s natural odors).

Body odor also has class implications: people who do physical work for a living will smell more strongly at the end of the day than people who don’t. Therefore, when having a stronger odor is defined as inferior, doing manual work automatically identifies you as lower status. Similarly, if physical work is defined as lower status, which it generally is, that reinforces the class values of not having a strong body odor.

Culturally, we treat body odor as having health implications. Deodorant is not a health-related product, but “smelling clean” is associated with smelling healthy. There’s a persistent belief, which may well be true, that meat-eaters have stronger body odor than vegetarians, which can reinforce the sense that it’s health-related.

Babies smell very sweet, and thus “smelling like a baby” becomes a kind of marker of infancy. Since it’s well known that we are hard-wired to protect babies and very young children (and puppies and kittens), this is one reason people may be drawn to less intense body smells.

Finally, we raise a question of diversity: do we want to all smell the same? Is erasing our natural body odors a good thing? Especially when many of us replace them with jarred fragrances which make Unilever and its ilk rich and which don’t smell the same as each other … but they all smell different than human body smells. When are the differences in natural smells interesting and pleasing, and when are they disturbing and threatening? And what about human body odor as a source of sexual arousal? One thing the perfume industry does is try to rewire our sexual reactions to their fragrances.

Anyone doing a thesis on the politics of body odor?