Saturday, October 10, 2020

ANTOLOGIE: Mirosul corpului

“Body odour”, în Constance Classen, David Howes and Anthony Synnott, Aroma: the cultural history of smell, Routledge, 1994, part III: “Odour, power and society”


Concern with body odour and with methods of suppressing it has existed in the West since antiquity. What is new in our era—the era of consumer capitalism—is the availability of ready-made, mass- produced products to deal with body odours and the advertising used to promote them. Furthermore, due in part to these new techniques of production and marketing and in part to life-style changes, whereas in previous centuries it was largely the well-to-do who were preoccupied with ‘smelling sweet’, this concern has now penetrated the consciousness of all social classes.

This novel form of capitalist penetration may be traced in part to certain developments in advertising tactics in the 1920s. Consider the case of ‘Listerine’. Listerine had been sold as a general antiseptic for home and hospital use since the 1870s. In 1920, however, it was reinvented as a mouthwash. The new Listerine ads were modelled after the ‘advice to the lovelorn’ columns which had proved so popular in the tabloids. In one advertisement, the picture of a young woman peering questioningly into a mirror introduces a story entitled ‘What secret is your mirror holding back?’ The accompanying text makes note of all of the girl’s ‘advantages’: she is not only beautiful but talented, educated and better dressed than most. However, in the one pursuit that matters, the girl remains a failure: 

She was often a bridesmaid but never a bride. And the secret her mirror held back concerned a thing she least suspected—a thing people simply will not tell you to your face.
That’s the insidious thing about halitosis (unpleasant breath). You, yourself, rarely know when you have it. And even your closest friend won’t tell you.

This ad is far more than a business announcement: it is a ‘socio-drama’, with all the ingredients of a tragedy. The ad invites the reader to identify with the protagonist and to suffer vicariously her unhappy plight. Identification is enhanced by the device of referring to the mirror as ‘your mirror’ in the title, and oscillating between ‘she’ and ‘you’ in the text. The unhappy girl in the ad in this way becomes the reader’s alter ego.

The ad succeeds in building up tension in the reader, and not a little paranoia. As the advertisers had realized, body odour is a perfect subject for a marketing campaign based on nameless fears. Individuals are unaware of their own smell, it cannot be ‘seen’ (as one’s visual appearance can) in a mirror, and politeness decrees that it should not be broached by ‘even your closest friends’. It is only through the ad, which speaks with the voice of an ‘objective’ third party, that one can be openly warned of the dangers of body odour.

At the same time as the ad makes the reader aware of the devastating social consequences of body odour, though, it holds out the promise of relief, of catharsis: if the troubled girl in the ad is ignorant of the nature of her social shortcoming, the reader is in the know, and only has to go and buy the product to avoid the same fate. The product promises to shield its buyers from any further social shame, befriending them in a way no one else will. The tactic worked: the profits of the manufacturer of Listerine, Lambert Pharmaceutical Company, went from $100,000 per year in 1920 to over $4 million in 1927. There was no change in the substance of Listerine, only in its associations.

The use of the term ‘halitosis’ represented another major breakthrough in advertising practice. Giving bad breath a new name enabled the advertisers to talk about the very thing no one (supposedly) talked about. The scientific sound of this term, which was in fact exhumed from an old medical bulletin, also helped: it made bad breath sound like a medical condition. As a medical condition, bad breath became something which could and should be treated.

The medicalization of bad breath proved an extremely effective ploy, as evidenced by the way ‘the halitosis style’ or ‘the halitosis appeal’—as this new advertising strategy came to be known—was emulated by others.

In unmistakable tribute, [advertising] copywriters soon discovered and labeled over a hundred new diseases, including such transparent imitations as ‘bromodosis’ (sweaty foot odors), ‘homotosis’ (lack of attractive home furnishings), and ‘acidosis’ (sour stomach) and such inventive afflictions as ‘office hips’, ‘ashtray breath’, and ‘accelerator toe’. Needless to say, most of these new diseases had escaped the notice of the medical profession.

Advertisers, while ostensibly empathizing with the fears and anxieties of the general public, were mainly interested in capitalizing on those fears—the better to reduce buyer resistance to their products. Thus, for example, the anxieties of the average citizen concerning job security became one of the standard themes of the advertising dramas of the Depression years.

Listerine tied mouthwash to depression fears with a January 1931 ad entitled ‘Fired—and for a reason he never suspected’, a theme that Lifebuoy Soap employed several months later in ‘Don’t risk your job by offending with B.O.’ ‘Take no chances!’ warned Lifebuoy. ‘When business is slack, employers become more critical. Sometimes very little may turn the scales against us.’

Through texts like these, the advertisers not only articulated and gave definition to otherwise diffuse fears, they also humanized the impersonal forces of the marketplace and personalized the crises in the capitalist system that were responsible for people losing their jobs. Instead of perceiving the system to be at fault for their economic plight, the unemployed would pin the blame on their own persons, specifically on the odours emanating from their bodies. As a result of this displacement of blame, people might be able to make sense of their experience of the market-place, though only at the cost of coming to feel alienated from their bodies.

The role of advertisers as the apostles and apologists of modernity—that is, as interpreters and rationalizers of the ever- changing conditions of life in the twentieth century—is particularly apparent in the case of the massive advertising campaign sponsored by the Cleanliness Institute of the Association of American Soap and Glycerine Producers. Many of the Cleanliness Institute ads were constructed around what Roland Marchand has called the ‘parable of the First Impression’. In one ad depicting a job interview, a business executive stares sternly across his desk at a man with a troubled expression. The latter turns in his chair and gestures at a huge spectre of himself, cringing with embarrassment and self-doubt, that looms over his shoulder. The interview is an apparent failure, and the reason (in the words of the copywriter) is that the applicant:

was his own worst enemy. His appearance was against him and he knew it. Oh why had he neglected the bath that morning, the shave, the change of linen? Under the other fellow’s gaze it was hard to forget that cheap feeling.
There’s self-respect in soap and water. The clean-cut chap can look any man in the face and tell him the facts—for when you’re clean your appearance fights for you.

The social context of this parable was that there was growing uncertainty as to whether a person of ability and character would necessarily win out in the scramble for jobs and for success. The sense had emerged that getting a job and getting ahead in life depended more on making the right first impression than on any intrinsic qualities of the person. This sense was inspired and confirmed by the growing anonymity of business and social relationships, as well as the faster pace of ‘modern life’. ‘Quick decisions’ had become the norm, particularly, it seemed, with regard to hiring.

One of the more striking associations the Cleanliness Institute ad brings to light is the peculiarly modern association between inodorateness and power. In contemporary urban life, the strong man is neither the sweaty labourer nor the perfumed aristocrat, but the inodorate, clean-cut businessman. By removing dirt and body odour, soap, the ad tells us, confers both social equality and the power of objectivity on its users: ‘The clean-cut chap can look any man in the face and tell him the facts.’

A comparison of the approaches of the Listerine ad featuring a woman with the soap ads directed at men shows that each one is aimed at exploiting what is considered to be the pre-eminent concern of the sex in question: in the case of women, getting a man; and in the case of men, getting a job. Women must take care not to offend potential husbands with their odour, and men must take care not to similarly offend employers. In either case, the emphasis is not on internal worth but on external impression. One’s value is measured by the approval or rejection of others.

Summing up, we may say that the effect of the Listerine and other ads for deodorant products was to open a gap between self and body, and to insinuate the product being promoted into that gap. The message of the ads is that the product could protect the self from the social disaffection and disgrace to which the body might otherwise expose one by emitting antisocial odours. The desired result of the ads is for people to feel alienated from their bodies and dependent on toiletry products to save them from themselves.

Once deodorants have ‘saved’ us from social rejection, the question arises of how to win social approval. This is where perfumes, with their reputed image-enhancing powers, come in.

No comments:

Post a Comment