The First Commercially Sold Mouthwash Actually Invented a Malady for the Product to Cure

By | February 24, 2017
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by: Geoff Ficke

The first commercially successful mouthwash product is still one of the most famous: Listerine. First marketed in the late 19th century as a surgical antiseptic, the product enjoyed modest success. Listerine was created by Dr. Joseph Lawrence and Jordan Lambert and named in honor of Dr. Joseph Lister, the pioneer of antiseptic surgery. 

In distilled form, Listerine was sold in the early years of the 20th century as a floor cleaner and gonorrhea treatment. However, it was only in the 1920’s that the product started to sell in great volume, and only because of a clever marketing strategy. The Listerine advertising group invented a faux medical term to describe bad breath. At that time, bad breath was considered the norm, not a malodorous condition to be treated with over the counter medicinal-like products.  

The term, “chronic halitosis”, while sounding clinical, was an early example of verbally engineering a malady that could be cured only by using an existing product, in this case Listerine. The Listerine marketing team created halitosis as a way to apply a cure through gargling Listerine. The Company’s early advertising campaign depicted forlorn young lovers put off by the “bad breath” of their partners. Sales soared. 

This is a classic case of creating a novel, fresh Unique Selling Proposition for an existing consumer product. Listerine had enjoyed modest success when sold as a surgical antiseptic, floor polish and venereal disease treatment. However, by creating and driving a negative connotation for bad breath, and labeling the new hygiene “chronic halitosis”, a new superstar product was born. 

Use of mouthwash in oral hygiene is simply reflexive in modern industrial societies. We do not think twice about finishing our daily personal care ritual by gargling with a rinse. And yet, less than 100 years ago, no one gave oral halitosis a second thought. Like many advances, until the product was marketed to meet the need, the consumer did not know that Listerine was essential.

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