In the history of the advertising industry, the full force of persuasion has been put behind many products that turned out to be incredibly unsafe.
Even when those products were used exactly as advertised - they created enormous hazards, physical risk, and in some cases, even death. We'll explore how we invited Asbestos and DDT into our homes as miracle products, how certain games for children ended up posing incredible risks, and how a much-heralded drug ended up being one of the most devastating products in modern history.
In most of those cases, no one could foresee
they were selling danger.
Advertising can be a powerful force.
In the history of the advertising industry, the full force of persuasion has been put behind many products, that in hindsight, turned out to be incredibly unsafe.
Yet the power of advertising persuaded thousands of people to use those products. In a quirk of fate, those very products - when used exactly as advertised - created enormous hazards, physical risk, and in some cases, even death.
But in most of those cases, no one could foresee
they were selling danger...
Many everyday products were found to be dangerous over time.
Yet, before research or injury proved they were deadly, the advertising industry put its full weight behind their marketing.
It's an interesting list of very familiar products, and when you hear the upbeat advertising that was created for some of these brands - I have to say - it's nothing short of shocking.
So, let's go back in time to the post-war optimism of the 1950s!
Asbestos In Homes - 1959 promotional film
Yes, welcome to the wonders of Asbestos.
It was called the "miracle mineral" back then. As you could hear from that promotional film, asbestos was put in our houses, in our everyday household products, in our toys and even in the pipes that brought us drinking water.
It's a product with a long history.
The word "asbestos" comes from ancient Greece, meaning "unquenchable" or "inextinguishable."
It can be traced as far back as 4,500 years ago, as the people of Finland used asbestos to strengthen earthenware pots and cooking utensils. One of the first written descriptions of asbestos was documented in 300 BC, and some Roman rulers used asbestos tablecloths and napkins, and would amaze guests by cleaning them just by holding them over a fire.
The first commercial asbestos mine was opened in late 1874, in Asbestos, Quebec. By the mid 20th century, asbestos had over 4,000 uses, and was found in dozens of everyday products:
1965 Armstrong flooring TV commercial
Asbestos-related diseases were first noticed in the early 1900s. Occupational risks for asbestos workers in Britain were documented as far back as 1924, and the first known U.S. worker's compensation claim for asbestos disease was in 1927.
Cases continued to mount through the 30s and 40s, but were either not widely publicized, or concealed. But asbestos production continued, and hit its peak in the 50s and 60s, as the post-war consumer boom swept it along:
Early 60s asbestos TV commercial
Then, in the 1980s, research confirmed that asbestos caused a form of cancer called "Mesothelioma," because of the fact it would lodge in the lung, due to its "inextinguishable" quality. As a result, Asbestos was banned in over 50 countries.
According to the World Health Organization, the wonder product of the 50s still claims over 107,000 lives each year who die of related illnesses.
The upbeat commercials for the "Miracle Mineral" of the 50s and 60s has now led to another kind of commercial:
The case against the asbestos industry is considered the longest, most expensive tort in U.S. history.
During World War II, soldiers had to battle mosquitoes and the subsequent malaria the insects carried. Then, in 1939, the insecticidal properties of DDT were discovered.
DDT was a white, crystalline, tasteless and almost odourless chemical compound that proved remarkable at killing pests.
After the war, DDT was used as an agricultural insecticide. It's incredible success rate in controlling insects for crops made its use skyrocket.
Up until that time, DDT was mostly used in commercial applications. But soon enough, it was brought into the consumer world, and into our homes:
A shocking TV commercial for DDT.
The commercials positioned DDT as yet another breakthrough in an era of technological miracles.
This commercial from 1946 told the public that DDT was harmless to humans:
A promotional film claiming DDT was harmless to humans.
DDT was marketed heavily from the late 1940s through to the early 1960s. It was so effective in killing insects, that certain brands boasted about how much DDT was in their products:
A Pestroy product commercial that boasts its DDT content exceeds government specifications.
The following print ad encouraged parents to protect their children against disease-carrying insects by installing "TRIMZ DDT Children's Room Wallpaper."
A shocking ad for DDT Wallpaper for children's rooms.
The ad said the wallpaper was certified safe, and was tested and commended by Parent's Magazine. The wallpaper was soaked in DDT, and was easily hung in children's rooms. The ad went on to cheerfully say the wallpaper came in Jack & Jill or Disney patterns.
Then came Rachel Carson's famous book titled, "Silent Spring" in 1962. She argued that DDT wasn't only killing insects, but harming wildlife, the environment and humans, too - which raised the ire of the scientific community. But Rachel Carson stood her ground:
Scientists attack Rachel Carson.
The response from the public to Carson's book was so overwhelming that it is credited with launching the environmental movement in the U.S. But it wasn't until the early 70s that DDT was finally banned in North America.
The miracle chemical that had once propelled progress had left too much devastation in its path.
If you grew up in the 70s and 80s, like me, you probably spent some time on your lawn playing this game...
Various brands of lawn darts.
Lawn Darts was a game based on horseshoes. You lobbed a foot-long dart in the air and tried to get it into a circle about 35 feet away.
Lawn darts were originally marketed in the late 50s and early 60s, but didn't really take off because so few people had a backyard in those days. But as suburbia unfolded, and people moved out of the cities to find more affordable housing, backyard lawns were a major attraction.
With that, Lawn Darts found its audience.
Lawn Darts was marketed as a game for the "entire family." Photos on the boxes showed Mom and Dad, and their young children, all out on the lawn playing the game.
But soon those games turned deadly.
Dozens of children started to amass serious injuries from wayward darts. Many were severe head injuries, as the force from a lawn dart was estimated at about 23,000 pounds of pressure per square inch - easily capable of penetrating a skull.
The government tried to ban the game, but the lawn dart industry won a compromise, which allowed them to continue selling the darts as long as they were clearly marketed as a game for adults - not children - and a similar warning label had to be put on the package.
But when the Product Safety Commission collected lawn dart sets from 14 different manufacturers, they found most of them weren't complying with the warning requirements, and were still being sold in the toy departments of retail stores.
With that, the U.S. banned Lawn Darts one year later, in 1988. Canada followed in 1989.
A Kinder Egg Surprise TV commercial.
Kinder Eggs are a very popular Easter gift here in Canada.
But it may surprise you to know that Kinder Eggs are banned outright in the United States.
As a matter of fact, Kinder Eggs have never been allowed there.
The U.S. government views them as a potential choking hazard to children because they contain a small toy inside.
How serious is this at the border?
Last year, U.S. Customs Officials seized over 60,000 Kinder Eggs from travellers - twice the amount as the year before.
As the American Customs webpage states, Kinder Eggs are, quote: "Cute and seasonal, but they are too dangerous for children to be imported into the U.S."
A Winnipeg woman was stopped at the border when a Kinder Egg was found in her luggage. She was threatened with a fine, and had to sign a seven-page letter from the U.S. government asking her to formally authorize the destruction of the seized egg.
A Seattle couple returning home from Vancouver were detained for two hours when customs officials found six Kinder Surprise Eggs in their luggage. They were threatened with a $2,500 fine - per egg - for a total of $15,000.
That's what I call a Kinder Surprise.
In 1957, a new wonder drug was introduced.
An ad for a brand of Thalidomide.
While it was marketed under 37 different brand names, including Distaval, the drug was officially called Thalidomide.
Developed by a German pharmaceutical company called Grünenthal, it was marketed as a safe sedative, as a tranquilizer, and most importantly, as a remedy for morning sickness in pregnant women.
Thalidomide ads told the public that they were much safer than barbituates, which accounted for over 80% of accidental deaths by poisoning.
Another ad for a brand of Thalidomide with a slightly different selling strategy.
But it was the use of Thalidomide by pregnant women that would lead to its banning. The drug passed through the placental barrier and harmed the fetus.
Over 10,000 babies in 46 countries were born with severe birth defects. When that research surfaced, Thalidomide was pulled from the shelves and banned worldwide in 1961. Canada, for some reason, was the last country to ban the drug, finally doing so in 1962.
The United States never allowed Thalidomide. Francis Oldham Kelsey, a doctor with the FDA, withstood the pressure of the pharmaceutical industry and refused to approve the drug. In 1962, President Kennedy awarded her the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service for blocking the sale in America:
Francis Oldham Kelsey being cited by President Kennedy in 1962.
While this greatly diminished the effects of Thalidomide in the U.S., millions of the tablets were distributed to doctors in a clinical test. So it is impossible to know how many American women were affected.
Last year, Grünenthal, the German company that had developed Thalidomide, broke its 50-year silence on the subject and issued an apology:
News report of Grünenthal's apology to Thalidomide victims.
Many of the estimated 5,000 surviving victims felt it was too little, too late.
Once marketed as a wonder drug, Thalidomide has gone down in history as one of the worst medical disasters of all time.
More than one hundred years ago, retailer Sam Wannamaker famously said, "I am convinced that about one-half the money I spend for advertising is wasted, but I have never been able to decide which half."
That is the mystery of advertising.
Some ads produce no results at all. Even with big productions, big budgets, and the best advertising minds behind it.
Other times, the humblest advertising idea breaks all sale records.
All advertising companies strive to generate sales for their clients. At the end of the day, that is the yardstick of success.
As a responsible ad person, you put all your experience and resources behind achieving that.
Just as you can never really foresee if a campaign will be a roaring success, sometimes, as history shows us, it's also impossible to know if an advertised product will turn out to be horrifically dangerous.
And the heartbreaking part is when the persuasive power of advertising is put behind those products, attracting millions of people to use them.
Lawn darts is the perfect example. I remember loving that game - but thousands of injuries necessitated their ban.
Danger is also subjective - as Kinder Eggs show us. It's a welcome gift in Canada, and a forbidden one in the U.S.
Asbestos and DDT certainly emitted early warning signs years before they were banned, but because they both fueled unparalleled progress, those alarms were ignored.
Which is so often the case in our world.
Then there's the devastating effects of Thalidomide. Marketed to mothers as a remedy for morning sickness, it delivered one of the worst medical disasters in modern history.
While hindsight is 20/20, foresight is almost always shrouded in fog.
And if there's a lesson to be learned, it's that danger often arrives in disguise - be it games, chemicals or even the lure of a sale on Black Friday...