Deodorant is pretty much a staple for, well, everyone these days — but it wasn’t always that way.
Once upon a time, deodorant was a super tough sell, and nobody thought they needed it. So what changed? How did something go from being a total flop to becoming essential in almost every modern self-care regimen?
With a little bit of clever marketing, one copywriter turned the tables and made every man and woman in North America feel absolutely naked without their antiperspirant.
The History of BO
Despite deodorant’s difficulty catching on at first, people through the centuries have been masking their malodorous selves long before the invention of the solid roll-on.
In ancient Egyptian times, they bathed themselves in perfume — literally bathed in it. Some women put scented wax melts on top of their heads that would melt in the heat of the day, letting it run down their heads and necks. But hey, at least they didn’t stink.
The Romans were really big on perfume, and even in the absence of deodorant, wouldn’t be caught dead without being drenched in perfume. The Romans took it a step further, soaking their clothes in perfumes, and even scenting up their horses and pets.
In the Middle Ages of Europe during the church’s reign of power, it was decreed that nudity of any kind was indecent and immoral. As a result, many people stopped bathing altogether, and the smell got pretty rank. If you were rich, you could afford fancy perfumes. The wealthy of the time masked their stink with layers and layers of perfume.
The First Deodorants
In America, deodorant wasn’t really a thing until the late 1800s when an unknown inventor came out with the very first of its kind.
In 1888, Mum, the first ever deodorant, was released by a creator whose name has since been lost to history. Mum was a paste deodorant like Routine Cream and originally hit store shelves in Philadelphia.
Next came Everdry, an aluminum chloride antiperspirant that was applied with a cotton swab to the underarms. It was riddled with problems though. The early formulas of these deodorants had to be suspended in acid to be effective. The result was a bright red paste that stained clothes, actually ate through clothing, and caused red rashes on the users.
But hey, at least you weren’t sweating as much, right?
The first roll on deodorant didn’t come around until the 1950s and was a product that was actually inspired by the introduction of the ballpoint pen. Ban was developed by Helen Barnett Diserens, a member of the original production team for Mum.
Let Them Be Stinky
When deodorants were first manufactured and marketed, people were dumbfounded. Up until then, nobody had ever questioned that it was natural to have a little bit of sweat and BO, and if you got too ripe, you took a bath or spritzed on perfume.
Customers were super reluctant in the beginning — they saw deodorant as unnecessary and even harmful. This wasn’t even accounting for the fact that, in the Victorian era, very few people were keen to talk about bodily functions. Buying deodorant was admitting that you had them, and they were offended not just by the marketing, but the very idea.
At that time, rubber pads were worn in the armpits to protect clothes on hot days, and dress shields were worn by women so that sweat wouldn’t soak through their dresses.
In short, the world had been masking it’s sweaty stink for thousands of years, and they were having a hard time being convinced that it made sense to do it any other way.
Selling the World on the Idea
All of that changed when a clever copywriter and a deodorant company came together to try a radically different approach to how they marketed their products.
Odorono was developed by the daughter of a surgeon who had used the product to help with his sweaty hands at work. When she realized the product worked well on her armpits to both curb sweating and reduce odor, she got to work starting her company.
Things were tough for the deodorant business though. The year was 1912, and people were very reluctant to even entertain the idea of using a product designed to treat body odor. Sales were dismal, and the outlook wasn’t great. Drug stores were refusing to stock the product, and her saleswomen couldn’t move it either — nobody wanted deodorant.
The owner of the company partnered with a New York ad agency who connected her with a former bible salesman gone copywriter, James Young. Together, they worked on a strategy to undo the thinking that was stopping Odorono from becoming successful — the idea that it wasn’t necessary.
Instead of focusing on the fact that the deodorant blocked sweating and killed odor, Young positioned Odorono as a cure for a far more serious ailment: ostracism and embarrassment. Didn’t get invited out with the girls? It’s because they’re all secretly talking about how badly you stink. Still single? It’s because you’re too smelly for a good man to put up with.
With this campaign, Odorono infuriated and outraged people. The ad ran in the Ladies Home Journal, and women came in in droves to cancel their subscriptions. James Young attracted backlash from his female colleagues for it, who criticized him for blatantly preying on women’s insecurities.
Seriously. It. Was. Awful.
But it worked.
As many complaints as there were, there were even more sales. Just like that, deodorant became a necessity in women’s self-care regimens, and today, most wouldn’t dare to be caught without it.
Convincing Men They Needed Deodorant
Talking men into buying deodorant didn’t happen until 1935, when the first deodorant made specifically for men was launched. Top-Flite came on the heels of the Great Depression, a period that made men feel greatly emasculated in their inability to provide for their families.
Since most men considered perspiration and body odor to be a part of their masculine appeal, deodorant for these customers had two hills to climb with one end goal: make men feel macho, and get them to buy this stuff.
The product was sold in ceramic whiskey jugs because the founder of the brand ‘couldn’t think of anything more masculine’. Pretty soon, the demand was there from the male market, and deodorant became an everyday use product for both sexes.
Embrace Your Funk — Or Don’t.
The marketing tactics that took deodorant from the red burning goop that nobody wanted to the $18 billion industry it is today were far less than ethical. It turned what people had come to live without literally forever into an essential, based on the sole idea that they would be social rejects without it.
Whether you embrace your natural aroma or prefer the ones we put in our jars, we think the message here is pretty simple: screw what the ads say.
Embrace the odour nature gave you if that’s your jam, and if it’s not — well, we have some stuff you’ll love.
Shop Routine Cream (or don’t.)