There is a tremendous power to perceived wisdom and one of the most fascinating examples of this is the story of how people were convinced that they needed to slather themselves with unhealthy chemicals to avoid showing that they sweat.
A lot of people never actually stop to think about whether they actually need deodorant, let alone whether they need a somewhat unpleasant aerosol rather than a healthier organic deodorant bar.
However, it has been just over a century since the first adverts started to appear that convinced people they needed a cleansing product that they had never seen the point of previously, and the origin of this comes down to a high school student from Cincinnati, Ohio.
The first ever deodorant was a cream made with a zinc compound sold under the brand name Mum, but one of the first highly successful antiperspirant products had a somewhat unusual source.
Dr Abraham D Murphey had invented a liquid antiperspirant that was intended to be used by medical professionals. As people’s hands could sweat during tense operations, the red liquid could be rubbed into the skin and ensure that they could operate with the deft precision they needed to.
Dr Murphey’s teenage daughter, Edna, was fascinated by the deodorant mix and after messing around with it found that it was really useful at stopping underarms from sweating during an era when men and women alike still used cotton dress shields to absorb sweat on warm days to stop them staining clothes.
She called the product Odorono and started to sell it in Cincinnati, but struggled both with door-to-door sales and pharmacists. Customers did not feel they needed it or even wanted to talk about it.
In 1912, having struggled for two years to get her young enterprise off the ground, she went to a summer exposition in Atlantic City, and by a stroke of good fortune, the weather was especially hot, leading to the first successful set of sales, leading to wider promotion and the hiring of copywriter James Webb Young.
This led to the brand strategy that would change everything.
Inventing The Problem
Mr Young’s initial advertising ideas were largely about damage control and addressing concerns raised by people that deodorants were unhealthy. This was a major issue for Odorono as it used aluminium chloride as an active ingredient and the mixture had a bright red colour.
Therefore, these adverts would focus on how it was safe to use daily, had been developed by a doctor and wouldn’t stain clothes as red colouring would suggest.
This, as you may expect, did not win anyone over, and it looked like the deodorant market would remain a tiny niche, until Mr Young changed his tactics, and focused less on the product and more on sweating itself.
The focus switched to sweating itself as an embarrassing problem that may be affecting people’s social and romantic lives, with an easy bottled solution on hand.
This not only helped Odorono’s sales but invented the entire deodorant industry and all of the aerosols and chemical compounds that came with it.