Dove recently unveiled its latest campaign, and it hinges on the idea that your armpits are ugly. Dove Ultimate Go Sleeveless is supposed to give women "softer, smoother underarms in just five days"—in ads for the product, which Stephen Colbert calls a "breakthrough shame-o-vation," women cut the sleeves off their tops with joyful expressions, as if they've been liberated from a terrible scourge. If it's news to you that this part of your body is not so hot, Dove says you're in the minority, citing a survey in which 93 percent of women said they "think their underarms are unattractive." And if you doubt statistics culled from 534 women in an anonymous online poll, rest assured that Dove's best advertising efforts will be directed at making those numbers true.
Pity the poor deodorant-makers. What else are they to do? As the Wall Street Journal points out, they're in a bind—almost the entire U.S. population already uses deodorant, and consumers appear reluctant to switch to new brands. Dove's empowerment-via-shame marketing approach for Go Sleeveless has its roots in advertising techniques that gained popularity in the 1920s: a) pinpoint a problem, perhaps one consumers didn't even know they had; b) exacerbate anxiety around the problem; c) sell the cure.
The history of ads directed at women is particularly rich with such fear tactics. Thus, ad copy from the 1920s and '30s warned women of their place in the "beauty contest of life" (a corset manufacturer) and reminded them that "The Eyes of Men …The Eyes of Women/ Judge your Loveliness every day" (Camay soap). A 1953 ad for Chlorodent toothpaste stated point-blank: "There's another woman waiting for every man." Yikes!
"In advertising terms," writes historian James B. Twitchell in Twenty Ads That Shook the World, "you don't sell the product, you sell the need."
Herewith, a brief history of our ugliest body parts, as recounted by the advertising industry:
The substance that became Listerine was first invented in the late 19th century for use as a surgical antiseptic. In the 1920s, looking to goose sales, Gerard Lambert, son of the company's founder, began casting about for other uses for the product. As Stephen Fox writes in The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and Its Creators, Lambert consulted a chemist and discovered that the product could be used for bad breath. Ad copy adopted the term halitosis "as a sober, medical-sounding way of referring to the unmentionable," Fox writes. Using a technique Fox calls "advertising by fear," the copy for Listerine suggested that consumers could have bad breath without knowing it, since even their closest friends might not tell them.
Listerine targeted men and women, but the phrase "often a bridesmaid but never a bride" was made famous by the company's ads. In one 1925 image, a woman reads another woman's wedding announcement with a troubled expression on her face. "Her case was really a pathetic one," the copy intones, describing the woman as nowhere near marriage "as her birthdays crept gradually toward that tragic thirty mark." The culprit? Halitosis, of course.
"It's hard to assess Lambert's genius fairly," writes Twitchell in Twenty Ads. "It looks so easy, but it was a combination of staking a claim on a body part, knowing how to use constructive discontent (shame) as a selling tool, of realizing the power of research, and then of hammering it home."
Of course, it's not that people's breath didn't smell before, Twitchell points out—rather, "it was not considered socially offensive." Listerine changed that, creating both the problem and its cure.