How fear-based marketing invented bad breath.

Cole Schafer
Oct 28, 2019 · 4 min read
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Listerine was originally invented as both a surgical antiseptic and a “fix-all” remedy for an array of ailments ranging from Athlete’s foot to gonorrhea.

But, it was fear-based marketing that eventually turned the electric blue liquid into a smashing success; a product that can today be found in just about every household in America.

What is fear-based marketing?


Before we dive any deeper, let’s quickly explore the term I just used above…

It’s like finding a scab on someone’s arm, taking a paint scraper to it for a couple minutes until it’s raw and bloody, then selling them some Neosporin and a band-aid.

(Damn, that was a little more gruesome than I intended it to be).

Naturally, as you can probably guess, fear-based marketing gets a pretty nasty rap and deservedly so — when done carelessly it can actually create fear and insecurities in people that were previously nonexistent.

Take bad breath, for example.

How Listerine created a medical condition.

Bad breath has been something humans have had to deal with for… well, forever.

Wake up in the morning, breathe into the palm of your hand and you’ll smell something rather unpleasant.

It doesn’t matter who you are nor how well you brush your teeth, floss and stay away from stinky foods… you’ve experienced the fowl scent of your own breath before.

However, bad breath isn’t a disease.

It’s simply a part of being human, a part of being an animal with a warm wet mouth where bacteria can easily breed and stink up the place.

Or, at least this was the case before Listerine.

Early on, Listerine was being marketed lightly to Dentists as a way to kill this bacteria in the mouth. But, nobody paid attention until the now mouthwash giant began dabbling in fear-based marketing.

They looked back through the history books and found an old Latin word for bad breath: Halitosis.

Today, if you Google the word “Halitosis” you can find it on sites like WebMD and the Mayoclinic. Like cancer or diabetes, it comes with its very own set of symptoms and treatments and preventative measures.

What’s interesting is that while 25% of folks (or around 80 million Americans) supposedly experience symptoms of Halitosis at some point in their lives… last year over 200 million Americans used Listerine.

Fear-based marketing.

Nobody wants to marry a pretty girl with bad breath.

As soon as Listerine realized fear of Halitosis was causing folks to gargle their mouthwash by the liter, they began running tons of ads deeply ingraining the new “medical condition” in the American public.

One of the most iconic ad campaigns was focused on a fictional character named Edna.

She was sad, unmarried and plagued by Halitosis.

The ads depicted her sitting lonely by herself as another woman (with fresh smelling breath) was dancing with the man of her dreams.

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Listerine’s creation of Halitosis was so wildly successful that today marketer’s refer to fear based marketing as “Halitosis Appeal”.

Yet, despite Listerine’s success, we must ask ourselves… is fear based marketing ethical?

While, it’s certainly effective, is it ethical?

A few brands practicing fear based marketing today.

In an article I wrote a little while back, I opened up about some of my own insecurities and my personal journey accepting hair loss.

As a marketer myself, it was a very humbling experience.

As I began Googling things like “hair loss treatments” and “how to know if you’re losing your hair”, ads from dozens of hair loss startups began pummeling me from all angles.

After reading up on them, I found myself feeling much more insecure about my hair loss. And, while I don’t think any of these brands are inherently bad, they are certainly challenging to pin down from an ethical standpoint.

I think us marketers must walk a very fine line when marketing to an individual’s insecurities.

If we are marketing to them, we better have a very real solution that can solve them and we must be careful not to turn the insecurities we’re marketing to into linger life-long fears.

One prime example of a brand that took fear-based marketing too far was a startup called “Sweet Peach”.

It’s mission?

Since the ass-whipping it got by multiple online publications, it’s original founder has gone about doing some rebranding.

Regardless, it still presents a much larger issue…

Where do we draw the line with fear-based marketing?

While I think fear based marketing is a very effective tactic, I think brands need to ask themselves if their products are making the world a better place.

While Listerine’s ads sold and sold well… I imagine they left a lot of young men and women with a lifelong fear of bad breath.

Sure, they end up being life long customers… but, is that the type of customer you want? A customer that is buying from you strictly out of fear?

But, I digress.

By Cole Schafer.

You gotta check this out — Sticky Notes is my email list reserved strictly for entrepreneurs and creatives looking to sell like a Florida Snow Cone Vendor on the hottest day of the year.

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Cole Schafer

Written by

I write pretty words and sometimes sell things.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +718K people. Follow to join our community.

Cole Schafer

Written by

I write pretty words and sometimes sell things.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +718K people. Follow to join our community.

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