The Story of Halitosis and Why We Use Mouthwash

We’re all familiar with the sense of anxiety that fills us when we’re on our way to an important event- a job interview, best friend’s wedding, high school reunion, etc. You’re on your way, doing a mental checklist – clothes (check), shoes (check), wallet (check), keys (check)… uh-oh, you forgot your mouthwash and gum. Suddenly you slip from anxiety into a full-on panic attack as you taste the inside of your mouth and know with a sudden all-consuming clarity: your.breath.stinks.

You spiral further, thinking, how can I make it through the day without breathing on anyone? I can’t, can I? Great, so now I’ll be the bad breath guy and everyone will hate me and I’ll ruin this event because I’m so disgusting… and you sort of spiral on like that until you get there and see there’s a jar of mints right in the entrance lobby.

What if we told you that this panic attack we all have comes from… you guessed it, a marketing campaign!

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Bad Breath… Old News!

The problem of dealing with bad breath was nothing new in the early 1900s. According to the Los Angeles Times, problems with bad breath dated back to many ancient civilizations. Ancient Romans employed slaves to clean their mouths. Ancient Egyptians made toothpaste out of natron–which was also used for embalming mummies (ew). The Medieval Arabic empire encouraged people to chew twigs from the Salvadora persica shrub, which was said to freshen breath. Even the first toothbrushes, invented by China using hog’s hair bristles, were invented for the purpose of curing bad breath rather than general mouth sanitation.

So, when we entered the early 20th century, there were already hundreds of solutions to this cosmetic problem created throughout our long history.

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We all know this name, right? Well, it wasn’t always the bottle of blue or purple we pass by in the grocery store. When Listerine first hit the market in the 1880s, it was marketed for many different uses. It was first created as a surgical antiseptic by Dr. Joseph Lester, but it was also marketed for floor scrubbing, foot cleaning, and for treating gonorrhea.

You may be wondering- why am I putting something that was once used for floor scrubbing into my mouth every morning? Well, Listerine discovered their product could be used to help kill germs in the mouth. This was a much-needed product, especially when it came to treating wounds in this area. Sterile creams and bandages can’t be used to treat wounds in the mouth since it’s wet and constantly in use, so back then it was more common for a mouth wound to get infected.

So there ya go, a great product solving a consumer need- the story is over, right? Well, not exactly…

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Throwing All of the Shade

Although Listerine created a much-needed product that was useful for killing germs in the mouth, this wasn’t enough for the owner of the company, Jordan Wheat Lambert. He also wanted people to look to the mouthwash as a way to solve bad breath. The problem? There were already plenty of solutions out there and people didn’t see the need for Listerine.

To solve this problem, Lambert and his son came up with more than just an idea- they came up with a new word. They created the word Halitosis, which has Latin origins and is defined as ‘unpleasant breath’. Then they created a series of ad campaigns using this word as though it is a medical disease (which, spoiler alert, it’s not) and marketed Listerine as the only cure.

Suddenly, we weren’t just talking about bad breath, the cosmetic problem. We were talking about halitosis, the scary disease you might have without even knowing it! And these ads were some of the most pointed and savage ads out there. Here are some actual quotes from one of these ads:

“Halitosis makes you unpopular.”

“No matter how charming you may be or how fond of you your friends are, you can’t expect them to put up with halitosis (unpleasant breath) forever.”

“Don’t fool yourself. Since Halitosis never announces itself to the victim, you simply cannot know when you have it.”

They even created a character, Edna, featured in a few of their ads who was the ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride’ victim of halitosis. Here are some quotes from one of these ads:

“Edna’s case was really a pathetic one. Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry. Most of the girls in her set were married or about to be…”

“And as her birthdays crept gradually toward that tragic thirty-mark, marriage seemed further from her life than ever.”

“That’s the insidious thing about halitosis (unpleasant breath). You, yourself, rarely know when you have it. And even your closest friends won’t tell you.”

Pretty harsh, right? Suddenly there’s this disease you’ve never heard of that even your closest friends won’t tell you you have, that you have no way of knowing you have, that’s making you unpopular?

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Shade Pays

All that harsh language used in their ads certainly paid off. According to the Listerine website, sales went from $115,000 in 1921 to $4 million by 1927. Although Lambert continued attempts to market his product under additional uses such as toothpaste, deodorant, a cure for dandruff, etc.- this cosmetic use is what stuck most.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, marketing historians often use the term ‘halitosis appeal’ referring to the idea of using fear to market or sell a product. Though we now have several solutions for bad breath (from gum to breath strips), that fear of being hated or shunned for having bad breath has been passed down and is now embedded into our culture thanks to the marketing execs at Listerine.