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The Story that Brand Storytelling Tells about Us

Updated: Dec 31, 2021

I wanted to explore how brand storytelling has changed over the years. What I found was a much bigger story, the story of the evolution of North American society from one of misogyny and bigotry to diversity and inclusion. Advertising reflects the cultural values of the time as it highlights the things that motivate us to act and spend money.

There have always been different groups of people who hold different values and brands seek out those who align most with their values. As I hunt down the different ads of a time long past, I hope to find brands telling a variety of stories to different groups based on the demographics and values of each group, instead of a one size fits all option. Come with me as I jump down the rabbit hole of the history of brand storytelling in advertising.

I chose ads that I found online based on if they told a story to sell their product. Some of the ads told stories using an image and others copy, most used both.

If you find an ad that tells a story and you think I should ad it to a gallery, please share it in comment.

The Brand Story of Listerine

I came across Listerine's origin story in the book Freakenomics, if you haven't read the book, you should it is fascinating.

Listerine was invented as a powerful surgical antiseptic for the medical industry. According to Wikipedia, "English doctor Joseph Lister demonstrated in 1865 that use of carbolic acid on surgical dressings would significantly reduce rates of post-surgical infection. Lister's work in turn inspired St. Louis-based doctor Joseph Lawrence to develop an alcohol-based formula for a surgical antiseptic," which he called Listerine.

So how did Listerine go from a surgical antiseptic to a mouth wash? By telling stories.

As the story goes, sales were not what they had hoped for so they tried different markets until Gerard Lambert joined the team and started telling some pretty embarrassing stories. From Freakenomics by way of Wikipedia:

Listerine, for instance, was invented in the nineteenth century as powerful surgical antiseptic. It was later sold, in distilled form, as both a floor cleaner and a cure for gonorrhoea. But it wasn't a runaway success until the 1920s, when it was pitched as a solution for "chronic halitosis" — a then obscure medical term for bad breath. Listerine's new ads featured forlorn young women and men, eager for marriage but turned off by their mate's rotten breath. "Can I be happy with him in spite of that?" one maiden asked herself. Until that time, bad breath was not conventionally considered such a catastrophe. But Listerine changed that. As the advertising scholar James B. Twitchell writes, "Listerine did not make mouthwash as much as it made halitosis." In just seven years, the company's revenues rose from $115,000 to more than $8 million.

Pretty good for a mouthwash. One website I came across claimed that Gerard Lambert invented the word halitosis. If you know the real origin story of the word, please share it in the comments. In the galleries you will find different advertisements telling stories of bad breath moments and some sayings that made it into our vernacular. You may be surprised to learn which sayings originated from a mouthwash ad campaign.

As you go through the Listerine’s ads you discover their target audience was middle class white young people. The ad stories address their insecurities of being unloved, unwanted, unpopular, and left out.

Every generation has the same issues even if they feel they are the first group to be insecure. Our grandmothers and grandfathers wanted to look their bast to attract attention and be liked or loved. The only difference, is the fashion, the media, and the target market.

Today’s Listerine ads are more like the original ads, focused on the product facts and how the product works to clean our mouths. The person’s reason for buying is no longer about social standing and is focused on the product as an antiseptic.

Do you have a story about how Listerine has changed the way it tells it’s story or how their brand stories reflect the values of society at different times? Add your thoughts to the comments and be apart of the conversation.

Bookmark for the next chapter:

Brand Storytelling Advertising tells the story of us through time.

I've chosen to link back to the company webpage, if they are still in business, instead of the site I found them on because most of the sites took them from somewhere else without linking back ... Go

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