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Advertisings First “Whisper Campaign” Created the Modern Antiperspirant Deodorant Industry

by: Geoff Ficke

Until the early 20th century body odor was addressed in basically one of two ways. The uneducated and impoverished simply did not address their hygiene. The upper-classes bathed on average once each week and most undertook a “toilet” once or twice each day. This consisted of standing at a wash basin filled with hot water and administering a simple sponge bath with a soaped sponge and then a full body rinsing wipe down.

The first modern deodorant product was Mum, introduced in the 1880’s. This product was packaged in jars and applied to the armpit and elsewhere on the body by rubbing onto the skin with one’s fingers. Many people considered the application of the cream in such a manner to be unpleasant and the product possessed and unusual unpleasant odor.

The far larger quandary facing the marketers of products designed to mask and correct unpleasant body odors was that almost all women of the day were simply unaware that they projected offensive odors. They just did not consider their hygiene to be offensive to others, and importantly, their paramours. Body odors were considered natural, even if rancid smelling.

Early in the 20th century a young woman in Cincinnati, a surgeon’s daughter named Edna Murphey tried to sell an antiperspirant product that her father had developed to keep his hands dry while performing surgery. She labeled the deodorant Odorono. Though determined, Ms. Murphey was not very competent or successful at marketing.

The team of door to door sales women Ms. Murphey assembled did not move Odorono at sales levels she had planned. Pharmacists refused to carry the item as they were not receiving calls for such a product to address sweat or perspiration. In desperation, she took a booth at the 1912 Atlantic City Exposition to demonstrate the features and benefits of Odorono. Initially sales were tepid. Fortunately for Ms. Murphey, the expo lasted all summer and 1912 was a particularly hot year. By the end of the fair she had sold over $30,000 worth of Odorono and seemed to be on her way to success.

Sales did grow for several years then hit a wall. Odorono needed professional help and so Ms. Murphey hired the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency to handle her account. JWT opened an office in Cincinnati and assigned a young copywriter named James Young to manage the office and the Odorono account.

Mr. Young immediately confronted the problem that Ms. Murphey had not able to overcome: the commonly held belief of the time that blocking perspiration was unhealthy. Mr. Young’s first ad copy highlighted the scientific provenance of Odorono and positioned the problem of “excessive perspiration” as a medical malady in need of correction.

Sales again accelerated but in a few years began to stutter again. James Young knew that he had to do something radical to save the Odorono account and his fledgling advertising career. He decided to present the problem of body odor and perspiration as a social faux pas. His first ad, which appeared in Ladies Home Journal in a 1919-edition was titled “Within the Curve of a Woman’s Arm”. It was a masterstroke.

The image in the ad was of a woman in a romantic situation with a man. The copy directly and pointedly stated that if the lady wanted to keep her man she had better not smell or stink. In fact, a smelly gal might not even realize she is offensive and this could lead to males avoiding her. The ad caused shock waves and Ladies Home Journal even lost subscribers because of the content.

However, the controversy brought attention to Odorono and the newly addressed problem of feminine body odor. In 1920 sales of the product soared to $417,000.By 1927 Company sales had hit the $1 million mark and in 1929 Edna Murphey sold her business to Northam Warren the makers of Cutex Nail Polish Remover.

This is widely considered the first commercial use of a “whisper campaign” in advertising used to scare female consumers into buying a product to combat sweat and natural body perspiration. Competitors began to mimic the model created by James Young and the technique became a common strategy utilized in the advertising and consumer product marketing industry.

James Young went on to enjoy a career as one of the most famous and successful advertising copywriters of the 20th century. He rose to become Chairman of the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency, helping it to grow into the largest in the world. His “whisper campaign” was instrumental in launching Odorono and thus laying the first brick in the creation of what is today an $18 billion industry: deodorant antiperspirant products. His creation of the “whisper campaign” is still studied in University marketing courses to this day.