- Selling Sexual Certainty? Advertising Lysol as a Contraceptive in the United States and Canada, 1919–1939
During the interwar period, Lysol Disinfectant was sold throughout Canada and the United States as a contraceptive douche for women. In fact, Lysol became the leading over-the-counter contraceptive sold on the euphemistically termed “feminine hygiene” market. Though the sale of contraceptives were illegal in both Canada and the United States since the latter part of the nineteenth century, by the 1920s, astute manufacturers were selling goods with supposedly contraceptive properties, including vaginal jellies, foaming tablets, and as was the case with Lysol, vaginal douches. As contemporaries argued, advertising played a central role in the success of the feminine hygiene industry.1 This article investigates Lysol’s interwar advertising campaign to determine how the company attempted to communicate the purpose of its product to white, literate, married, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class female consumers while evading legal ramifications. It argues that North American Lysol advertisements were designed using euphemistic language and emergent modern advertising techniques that appealed to consumers’ emotions (as opposed to their sense of reason as had previously been the case) to capitalize upon contextually specific trends, including women’s [End Page 71] fear of premature aging and loss of sexual attractiveness, the danger of maternal morbidity and mortality, as well as the threat of marital disunity, to convey the intended purpose of the product. This work also demonstrates the central importance of considering the historical context of companies’ intended consumers when analyzing historical advertising and marketing campaigns.
The concept of interwar modernity has been a major contextual trend that historians have linked to 1920s and 1930s North America and would have influenced the lives of Lysol’s potential consumer base. As historians such as Cynthia Comacchio have explained, modernity as it emerged in the interwar years was essentially the replacement of pre-World War I norms premised on stability and continuity, now emphasizing “the new realities wrought by science and technology.”2 This was indeed the case as interwar modernity was characterized by scientific technological, and economic advancement, including reliance on physicians to improve national health, the rise of experts in the social sciences, and the popularization of Frederick Taylor’s ideas on the scientific management of the industrial workforce in an effort to increase efficiency.3
The practice of advertising was also deeply affected by the rise of interwar modernity. Advertising historian Ronald Marchand argues that advertising was becoming “modern” by the 1920s and into the 1930s. He notes that the concept of modernity was reflected in the advertising industry as advertisers looked to science, and psychology more specifically, to formulate advertisements that would invoke strong emotional reactions and compel consumers to purchase the goods being advertised.4 This was a stark contrast to national advertisements formulated from the rise of the mass market in the 1880s until the 1910s, which celebrated economic progress as reflected in methods of mass production. By the 1920s, however, consumption was being recognized as a sign of progress as well, and advertisements were becoming increasingly consumer centered.5 The development of the consumer-centered advertisement combined with a conscious modernity meant [End Page 72] that advertisers began to use psychologically based methods to create persuasive advertisements directed at their potential consumers.
In examining the writings of prominent advertising theorists of the period including Paul T. Cherington, J. George Frederick, Carl B. Naether, and Daniel Starch, it becomes clear that advertisers did recognize the importance of psychological approaches to advertising, especially when formulating ads for white, married, middle-class females who had both the literacy skills to read carefully and access to the household income required to purchase large amounts of consumer goods.6 In Daniel Starch’s words, during the 1920s and 1930s, this female demographic “assumed a very important place as buyers, not only of commodities for their own personal use, but also of commodities for the home, and even to quite an extent of commodities used exclusively by men.”7 In creating psychological appeals for this demographic, advertisers attempted to gain a solid understanding of the lives of the women they targeted, and more important, what aspects of their...