Monday, December 10, 2012

Selling anxiety and bad self-image

Advertising over the years, especially successful advertising, shows how our society has been shaped by Madison Avenue. These ads from Life, 1930s, ’40s and '50s, are of a type that increase sales by increasing anxiety about our bodies.

Even today ads that point out our inadequacies do well. How about ads that tell us our teeth aren’t white enough? For many years advertisers did well enough just pointing out that our breath could offend, or that our teeth would fall out without proper care. But now they have to be dazzling white. Thanks to a million cups of coffee over the past 45 years my teeth fail that brightness-whiteness test. I try not to show my teeth. It shows me once again that advertising has made me self-conscious about some part of my body.

In this ad from 1943 a kid tells her Aunt Jane she’s an old maid because her breath is bad! Aunt Jane checks with her dentist who recommends Colgate toothpaste and sure enough, Jane gets a husband.

“Nervous B.O.” isn’t the catchiest phrase I’ve ever seen, but it was successful for sales of Lifebuoy, which created anxiety about anxiety. Use Lifebuoy, no one will smell your nervous sweat, claims this 1940 ad.

I think this 1953 ad for Chlorodent is especially bad; it feeds the fears of housewives that their husbands are meeting other women at work, finding their wives lacking by comparison. When this ad ran many women stayed home with the kids, and this was a real fear. The image of the husband-stealing seductress behind a spiderweb must’ve sent chills through housewives all over the country. Whether it did a lot for Chlorodent I don’t that product still on the market?

 Of all the things to make one feel bad about oneself, “smelly hands” isn’t high on the list. It just doesn’t meet the anxiety level needed to make a product a success. (It sounds more like something from Seinfeld.) That Frostilla is no longer in business, and that no one ever mentions smelly hands is probably an indicator that this campaign from 1937 didn't pass the smell test.

Except for an occasional misfire, making us feel bad about ourselves is something advertisers do very well.

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