The most effective advertisements tap into our deepest insecurities. Selling consumer goods is like hotwiring a car: when an ad connects an insecurity to a felt need, sales spark. We will buy if marketers can persuade us that their products will alleviate our fears, and make us more appealing in the eyes of others.
It’s a brilliant marketing model born in the 1920s.
During that roaring decade, a bustling new economy drove the advertising revolution. Between 1923 and 1929, consumable spending shot up 25% in the States. With new cash stimulating the market, more and more products competitively grabbed for the attention (and wallets) of new consumers, who now found themselves increasingly migrating from rural life into cities. With the booming cashflow, specialized ad agencies put together persuasive ad campaigns from major metropolitan centers. The story of this advertising revolution is told by Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, in his excellent new book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (2016).
“During this period [the 1920s] it struck businessmen, as if all at once, that America was becoming a consumer society, and most of this new purchasing of household goods was being done by the lady of the house,” writes Wu. “Companies, run mostly by men, therefore, came to see cracking the code of the female consumer as the key to commerce” (59).
Adaptive ad agencies grew fast. J. Walter Thompson Co., a New York City firm founded in 1877 by James Walter Thompson, a persuasive genius, was by the 1920s the largest advertising firm in the world. Thompson adapted to the age, and he knew, in his own words, that consumers “put down their money for what things will do for them; sell the complexion, not the soap,” he said. “The promise is the most important thing in advertising” (Stole, 22).
Thompson knew how to sell promises, and how to sell promises to women — and none of Thompson’s clients tried harder to sell promises to women than Listerine mouthwash.
The now-famous line “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” was branded into public consciousness by this 1925 Listerine ad.
“Edna’s case was really a pathetic one,” the ad copy says, narrating a miserable tale. “Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry. Most of the girls of her set were married — or about to be. Yet not one possessed more grace or charm or loveliness than she.”
Edna seemed so appealing, and that she had everything going for her. So what went wrong?
“As her birthdays crept gradually toward that tragic thirty-mark, marriage seemed farther from her life than ever. She was often a bridesmaid but never a bride. That’s the insidious thing about halitosis (unpleasant breath). You, yourself, rarely know when you have it. And even your closest friends won’t tell you.”
The ad taps into fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the future. Fear of rejection. Fear of loneliness. Edna, the target of this fear-mongering ad, was instantly made insecure about her mouth and plagued with an insidious, unseen, marriage-killing monster named halitosis.
The ad demonized bad breath so well that Listerine reused it over the decades, modernizing the language and the names and the images to reflect the changing times, but returning to the street-proven tactic.
But bad breath was hardly a problem limited to aging bachelorettes. Bad breath will destroy a teenage girl’s social life and scare off boys. And when it does, who is to blame?
Mom, of course.
“Poor child, she had no means of knowing why her first real party had been such a failure . . . why one boy after another coolly ignored her and whispered about her behind her back. The very night she wanted to be her best, she was at her worst. It can happen that way when halitosis steps in. One little suggestion from her mother might have made her evening a delightful one instead of the nightmare it was.”
Girls and their mothers are reminded, “To be extra-attractive, be extra-careful about your breath. Never take it for granted and never, never trust momentary makeshifts. Always put your faith in Listerine Antiseptic, the extra-careful and trustworthy precaution against offending.”
It is easy to laugh at this ad with its doomsday scenario and call for religious faith and lifelong trust in a corporate product. It’s also easy to laugh at the idea of a friend in a bottle, who will be there to help you win at life (for a price). It’s easy to laugh — until you realize how insidiously the language targets the insecurities of girls (rejection by boys), and the insecurity of moms (of hamstringing their daughters’ lives and social success).
Seeing the power of these ads, even soap-makers jump on the marketing model.
Sex and Soap
“A skin you love to touch” was the slogan of a revolutionary ad campaign launched in 1916 to sell John H. Woodbury’s Facial Soap. And it worked.
Every woman should “have the charm of a radiant, velvety skin.” Because if you have a skin that you love to touch, it will be a skin that others would love to touch.
The ad is now legendary, the first attempt to venture into sex appeal in advertising. The right soap will provide you an attractive face, and an attractive face will land you a handsome hunk.
The ad was the early work of Helen Lansdowne, one of the first female ad-writers. Hired by Thompson’s ad agency in New York City, she left her mark on the burgeoning consumerism of the 1920s. And this ad is perhaps her most famous piece. Not only is this image the first to introduce sex appeal in advertising, it was innovative for another reason.
“What is really most notable about this marriage of word and image is that, unlike the traditional ads, which offer a cure for a problem — new snake oil in old bottles — Lansdowne’s advertisement holds out the promise of a better life. It sells the reader on herself, a new self, better than the old. Here was an innovatively oblique way of pushing the product by connecting it to the consumer’s deepest yearning to be beautiful and desired” (Wu, 60–61).
A better self. A new you. That’s a fail-safe recipe for advertising success.
Suds and Security
But of all of these “whisper copy” ads from the 1920s, aimed at exploiting fears and insecurities, none top John H. Woodbury’s Facial Soap’s full-color ad in a 1922 Ladies Home Journal.
“All around you people are judging you silently.”
Look at the woman at the center of attention. She looks smart (see the book in her hand). She looks cosmopolitan (see her hair and dress). But she is under attack from the judging gaze of everyone in the room — and inside her own house, no less!
“You cannot escape it — that frank, often unspoken comment that is born in the mind of every person you meet,” warns the ad. “The friends who greet you in your own-drawing room — the strangers who passed you on the street — each one of them is storing up impressions of you that you will never know. Don’t let little evidences of neglect — carelessness about your appearance — create an unfavorable impression. Keep your skin clear, smooth, flawless! Nothing has more influence on your appearance than the condition of your skin. It should be above criticism, always.”
Is there any respite from these judging eyes? Any way of escape? No. Face up to this reality: you will be judged all the time, by everyone, everywhere you go. So you should buy John H. Woodbury’s Facial Soap immediately.
Serpent’s Marketing 101
No surprise, we find Walter Thompson and his crew behind this ad campaign, too. He and his team were not acting in blind ignorance of human desire. They knew their Bibles, and they were experts of the human heart.
In 1920, Thompson hired the famous behaviorist John B. Watson. In one of Watson’s speeches, on buyers and how to entice them, he said, “Since the time the serpent in the Garden of Eden influenced Eve, and Eve in turn persuaded Adam, the world has tried to find out ways and means of controlling human behavior. In advertising, we call the process selling” (Kreshel, 53).
Watson knew that the Garden of Eden represented Satan’s grand moment of advertising, the holding out of a succulent fruit, an eye-grabbing consumable good. But the devil’s pitch was not centered on the nutritional density or health benefits of organic apples. No, there’s a more venomous approach to advertising. The promise was there in the ancient beginnings of ad agencies — the promise that taps into the power of human insecurity, and the promise that presents a re-making of the self. A new you. What Satan promised was simple: if Eve (and Adam) would eat the consumable good, they would become godlike.
Of course, the promise was false. Premature self-glorification is a hoax.
Insecurities for Sale
My point here isn’t to discourage personal health care or cosmetics or nice clothing. My point is to expose some of the buttons that marketing experts know to press, to uncover certain insecurities that never fail to tap into our deepest longings.
Susan Matt, in her study Keeping Up with the Joneses: Envy in American Consumer Society, 1890–1930, quotes Frances Maule Bjorkman, who was both a prominent voice in the women’s suffrage movement, and a successful female copywriter for Thompson in the 1920s. Motivating women to action was her specialty, and when it came to ad copy, she explained her methodology. “We all suffer from an eating sense of unimportance, insignificance, inadequacy, whether we know it or not. And whether we know it or not, a large part of our energies are directed to making ourselves feel important, significant, equal to anything” (46).
The most innovative ad agencies will never invent new insecurities; they can only prick the old insecurities we all live with — women and men — and then prescribe little consumables as temporary cures. They dupe us into believing that the shortest route to confidence and likability is a form of self-glory — fresh breath and radiant skin. Just like in the 1920s, skin care and cosmetics today continue to bottle little promises of self-glorification by the quarter-ounce.
These 1920s-era ads are explicit reminders of the marketing power of self-perception, and the fear of being perceived poorly by others. The fear of man will fill your credit cards, and it will drive you to products and to clothes that promise to make you more appealing, and more liked and loved, less judged and less ignored and less talked about.
Find a new you, a better you, and you will be accepted and loved. Yes, these ads are overblown. Yes, they obviously compete with the superior desirableness of internal beauty (1 Peter 3:1–6). Yes, they compete with the joyful security we can only find in Christ. And yes, these promises compete with our hope in a future glorified body, a body we can only now imagine as we anticipate our physical resurrection.
These old ad campaigns were potent persuaders in American history. They persuade by promising us a new self. And that promise, made explicit in the 1920s, is still alive in marketing strategies today, though now in much subtler forms. Still today, the most effective advertisements tap into our deepest insecurities, if we let them. Ads promise us a new and better ‘me’ a million different ways. But Christians know a better promise and a better way.