The Cure for Your Fugly Armpits
How advertisers create body anxieties women didn't know they had, and then sell them the solution.
Odorono wasn't the first commercial deodorant in the U.S., but it played a role in the delicate art of marketing the "unmentionable." As historian Juliann Sivulka has written in a paper on deodorant advertising, this particular brand of "toilet water for perspiration" first began to take off in the 1910s. The company had some success with more traditional types of advertising—small print ads emphasizing the safety and efficacy of the product, which was then primarily marketed to women. But its sales plateaued, and when the company's ad agency conducted home surveys it discovered that many nonusers considered Odorono a product for other women, those with serious perspiration problems, not for themselves.
This is when the advertisers tried something new. Combining the promise of romance with the horror of rejection, a full-page ad in a 1919 issue of Ladies' Home Journal offered the image of a man and woman about to embrace. The copy explained that "fastidious women who want to be absolutely sure of their daintiness have found that they could not trust to their own consciousness," because "it is a physiological fact that persons troubled with perspiration odor seldom can detect it themselves."
Could the reader be absolutely sure she didn't smell, even just once in a while—maybe at precisely the wrong moment, in a moonlight garden in the arms of her lover? Or, as the ad put it, "Would you be absolutely sure of your daintiness?" With a few precise jabs at the readers' insecurities, the ad transformed Odorono "from a proprietary medicine to a beauty aid," Sivulka writes, shifting "an unmentionable topic to one of primary importance to every woman."
The Many Troubles of "Down There"
Down there is its own continent, and over the decades a myriad of marketing strategies have arisen to conquer it. The book Flowhas chronicled the challenges of selling menstruation products without offending the delicate sensibilities of the American consumers. (DoubleX ran a slide show from Flow co-author Susan Kim back in 2009. Please note that the slide show might render improperly in some browsers.) But pads and tampons are not the only corner of the feminine hygiene market that has been cloaked in euphemism. Consider douches and feminine deodorants, which offered the promise of what ads have labeled "intimate daintiness."
From the 1930s through the 1960s, according to Andrea Tone's Devices and Desires, the top feminine hygiene product in the country was Lysol. In addition to being marketed as a mouth gargle, a household cleaner, and more, the disinfectant was sold as a douche. Consumers understood that Lysol douche was to be used as a contraceptive, Tone writes, although the ads used veiled language, alluding to problems like "germs" and "odors," and suggesting that a wife's "fear of a major crisis" (code for becoming pregnant) could lead to marital discord and divorce. The ads tended to lay the happiness of the marriage—and the power to limit family size—squarely in the woman's lap. Only the "proved germicidal efficiency of Lysol" can "restore every woman's confidence in her power to please," one 1948 ad declared.
The unfortunate truth was that as a contraceptive, Lysol was ineffective, not to mention dangerous. Improperly diluted, it burned and blistered the vagina, and in some cases even caused death. Yet, Tone writes, it wasn't until the pill came along that Lysol douche was supplanted as the top choice of women looking to prevent pregnancy.
In the '60s, ads for feminine deodorant sprays and feminine wipes continued with the theme of troublesome odor, but without the double meaning. In her brilliant 1973 Esquire piece on feminine hygiene sprays, Nora Ephron traced how marketers surfed the wave of the sexual revolution to sell a product that, if anything, ran counter to the idea of liberated sexuality. Like Lysol douche, products such as FDS, Massengill Powder, and Bidette Mist at once aroused anxiety about women's vaginas and offered solutions to the problem.
Ephron quotes a 1968 ad for FDS posing the question of whether women need more than underarm deodorant. "Yes," the ad helpfully answers itself. "A woman, if she's completely honest about it, realizes her most serious problem isn't under her arms."
Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at email@example.com.