Now Splinter Free: How Marketing Broke Taboos

This week, we explore how some of society's biggest taboos were broken by marketers. We’ll look at why toilet paper was a hush-hush product in the 19th century, which publication was the first ever to print an ad on its front page and how Lysol was originally advertised…as contraception. Some taboos were broken years ago, some more recently than you may realize.

This week, we explore how some of society's biggest taboos were broken by marketers. We'll look at why toilet paper was a hush-hush product in the 19th century, which publication was the first ever to print an ad on its front page and how Lysol was originally advertised…as contraception. Some taboos were broken years ago, some more recently than you may realize.


There were many taboos back in the Victorian era.

The 1800s were an interesting time... (Image Source: victorianchildren.org)

You couldn't reference bodily functions. You couldn't show affection in public. Divorce was taboo. Looking pregnant or even using the word pregnant was off limits. An exposed female ankle was considered scandalous.

It's said that even the legs of pianos were covered in homes.

As a result, taboos also made it difficult to express your desire for someone.

That's where floriography came in.

You really had to know your flowers back then. (Image Source: feritradition)

Simply put, floriography was the use of encoded messages through the arrangement of flowers. This secret flower language allowed people to express feelings which otherwise could not be spoken.

So if you were to receive a bouquet of yellow Acacia, that meant someone was secretly in love with you.

If you were to send that person back a bouquet of majorum, that would mean you were blushing.

If that person were to then send you a fragrant Spanish Jasmine, that meant they were intoxicated with your sensuality.

If you were to reply with a larch bouquet, that would mean you find their advances bold.

If they sent you back a bunch of Linden flowers, that meant they really wanted conjugal love.

If you offered a single China Astor, it meant you would consider the request.

If they responded with a bouquet of red columbines, that meant they were anxious and trembling.

But if you sent over bunch of orange flowers, that meant you decided to go with celibacy.

Florists must have made a fortune. (Image Source: topconsumerreviews)

Floriography also spawned a sub-genre of flower dictionaries, allowing people to quickly thumb the pages looking for the real meanings behind bouquets.

Much was forbidden in the Victorian era. With so many taboos, the secret language of flowers was one of the only ways to get messages through.


The modern world of marketing has had to deal with many taboos over the years.

And it, too, has had to create ways to get messages through.

How certain taboos were broken by marketers is a fascinating bit of history.

And when certain taboos were finally breached tells us a lot about our society.

Some taboos were broken years ago.

Some were broken only recently.

And many have now blossomed into major advertising categories...


Helen Lansdowne Resor joined advertising agency J. Walter Thompson in the year 1907.

A legend in the business. (Image Source: jwt.com)

She was a hugely influential figure in the history of advertising because she was the first woman to plan and write national advertising campaigns.

One of her first campaigns was for Woodbury's Facial Soap.

Established in 1870. (Image Source: mum.org)

When she determined the audience for facial soap was women, she played into the fantasy she believed all women harboured – which was to attract a man's complete attention and adoration.

She was among the first ad writers to add emotion to advertising - instead of just practicality and price.

Using emotion, Helen Resor broke a long-standing taboo in 1911.

She introduced sex to advertising.

Resor created a landmark print ad for Woodbury's that showed a man with his arms suggestively wrapped around a woman as he nuzzles her neck. The headline said:

Scanty. (Image Source: mum.org)

It created a sensation.

Many readers were outraged. But many must have been intrigued.

Because sales of Woodbury's Facial Soap skyrocketed 500%.

It wouldn't be the only taboo the advertising world would break.


At about the same time, Lysol began marketing itself to women.

Not as a toilet bowl cleanser, but as a feminine hygiene product.

(Image Source: forgottenhistoryblog)

I kid you not. Lysol print ads broke a big taboo by talking about "feminine hygiene." They promoted Lysol as a douche, to "safeguard her dainty feminine allure."

The ads used fear as a persuasion tool, suggesting that a woman risked ruining her marriage if she didn't practice the ritual of using Lysol to kill intimate germs and odours.

(Image Source: holyhormonesjournal)

But here's what you have to know:

These Lysol ads weren't about cleanliness. "Feminine hygiene" was a euphemism...for birth control.

(Image Source: mum.org)

These Lysol ads were for contraception.

Under the 1892 Criminal Code in Canada and a similar law in the United States, using birth control was taboo, considered obscene and anti-religious.

An accused person could serve a 2-year jail sentence.

That fuelled sales of "under the counter" contraceptives.

Like Lysol.

As a matter of fact, Lysol became the best-selling method of contraception during the Great Depression.

If you're squirming at the thought of using Lysol as a spermicide, you should. The formula Lysol used back then was far stronger than the Lysol we use today to clean bathrooms.

Even though it was marketed aggressively as safe and gentle, many women were poisoned, many more experienced severe burns and some even died from using Lysol as a contraceptive.

When you look back, those early Lysol advertisements were really breaking two taboos:

One: For being the first to talk feminine hygiene.

And two: For using code to subtly address contraception.

(Image Source: mum.org)

Toilet paper has a delicate history.

A man named Joseph Gayetty produced the first commercial bathroom paper in 1857. He sold packages of individual sheets and proudly put his name on each one.

(Image Source: wikimedia)

But that bottom-up recognition didn't help.

Nobody bought it.

After all, why pay for toilet paper when pages from the Sears catalogue and Farmer's Almanac were free?

Then in 1890, the Scott Paper Company came up with an idea to sell perforated toilet paper on a roll. With indoor plumbing emerging, it was the right product at the right time.

(Image Source: alchetron)

But the subject of toilet paper was taboo in the Victorian 1890s.

People wouldn't ask for it. Retailers wouldn't display it. Publications wouldn't advertise it.

Even the Scott brothers, founders of Scott Paper, were too embarrassed to put their own name on their own product. They needed a marketing idea.

They hit on an ingenious solution: They gave their corporate customers incentive to buy toilet paper by customizing the packaging. So, for example, the Waldorf Hotel in New York offered "Waldorf" toilet paper in its bathrooms. Macy's featured "Macy's Toilet Paper," and so on.

Soon Scott was producing private label brands for over 2,000 companies.

Around 1903, Scott Paper finally decided to halt all private label marketing and brand their product once and for all as Scott Tissue. To skirt any lingering taboo backlash, they advertised their toilet paper as a medical product to help stop the spread of dysentery, typhoid and cholera.

(Image ource: pabook2)

The Scott brothers created a mascot called Mr. Thirsty Fibre – who looked like an angry Abraham Lincoln in a top hat, shaking his fists at moisture.

(Image Source: fulltable.com)

By 1925, Scott was the leading TP company in the world.

Toilet paper became so popular, the Scott Paper Company didn't have to lay off a single worker during the Depression.

But while toilet paper was popular, advancements were slow in coming. As late as 1935, the Northern Tissue company boasted that their toilet paper was "splinter free!"

(Image Source: whoonew)

By that time, the taboo around marketing toilet paper had been long broken.

Today, the average person uses 57 sheets of toilet paper per day.

It's an industry flush with profit.


Condoms have been around for centuries.

But condom advertising was strictly taboo.

Despite the growing popularity of condoms throughout the sexual revolution, condoms still weren't advertised in mass media.

Until one fateful night in 1975.

Local station KNTV in San Jose, California, interrupted their rerun of an old Peter Sellers movie with a commercial showing a couple running across a beach in slow motion:

To many, the message was jaw dropping. It wasn't just a just a condom commercial, it was a contraception commercial.

The KNTV switchboard was jammed all night.

Unlike many American stations, KNTV was independent and didn't adhere to the National Association of Broadcasters code of ethics, which strictly banned condom commercials.

Even so, they pulled the ad.

Then something interesting happened.

KNTV news began covering the very controversy it had created.

They even played the ad as part of their coverage.

When KNTV later polled their viewers, it appeared they had a change of heart. Viewers voted 8 to 1 in favour of the commercial.

It seemed they just needed a little time…to wrap their heads around it.

Then came the AIDS epidemic.

(Image Source: deathandtaxesmag)

On June 5, 1981, the U.S. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention introduced the world to what Prince would later call the "big disease with the little name."

It had infected almost 300 people and taken the lives of 120 others.

One year later, it was christened AIDS, or "Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome".

The disease was spread primarily through unprotected sex. But condom advertising was still taboo.

In 1987, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop criticized television networks for refusing to sell airtime to condom manufacturers. He strongly believed that running condom ads on national television was vital in the fight against AIDS, saying condoms offered the best protection against infection - barring abstinence.

Condoms were no longer a matter of STI prevention, but a matter of life and death.

By the late '80s, major networks began airing PSAs promoting condom use solely for AIDS and STI prevention.

(Image Source: nationallibraryofmedicine)

The New York Times announced it would relax its policies and run a condom print ad. The only stipulation by the publication was that the word "contraceptive" not be used.

Then finally, in 1991, ten full years after HIV/AIDS was first identified, the Fox Broadcasting Company became the first national television network to break the taboo and run a branded condom commercial.

It was a 15-second Trojan ad that aired during an episode of the sitcom Herman's Head and was seen by over 7 million American households.

It turns out, the ad was approved for television because it didn't mention the contraception side of condom use. Other ads had been rejected for the mention of the word "spermicide."

Fox made the decision just four days after basketball superstar Magic Johnson made this announcement:

But the network would only run condom ads after 9pm.

Eventually that too would change. Today, condom advertising is a major marketing category and ads aren't limited to airing at certain times of day. Nor are they limited to the subject of STI prevention.

It's a long way from the first condom commercial that ran in a Peter Sellers rerun.

And another intimate adult product would follow a similar path…


It is said that baby boomers will be the first to experience a fitting bookend.

They were the first generation to be swaddled in disposable diapers, and they will leave this earth clad in them, too.

(Image Source: healthandfitness)

But adult diapers were a long-standing taboo in our culture.

Proctor & Gamble was the long-time leader in the children's disposable diaper category with Pampers.

Back in 1978, P&G launched Attends – an adult diaper for people with incontinence issues. But incontinence was a taboo subject.

(Image Source: thecaregiverpartnership)

Nobody wanted to admit they have it. Nobody wanted to ask for it at a store.

While Attends mainly sold to hospitals and other institutions, P&G was hesitant to advertise the diapers in the mainstream media, and ran only a few print ads.

Then in 1983, competitor Kimberly-Clark launched Depend. Noting P&G's reluctance to break the taboo on television, the company decided to market the adult diapers with an aggressive campaign.

Depend commercials showed seniors defiantly leading very active lives - golfing, jogging and playing tennis:

Then Depend hit on a powerful idea when it signed movie star June Allyson as spokesperson:

Allyson became aware of incontinence when she realized her own Mother was suffering in silence. She had stopped coming to family gatherings and withdrew from social events. So Allyson recommended Depend.

When Depend approached Allyson to be spokesperson, she was hesitant. But her Mother said to her, "The world has been wonderful to you. It's time you gave back a little something."

Allyson agreed and became the Depend spokesperson. Her celebrity appealed to the right age group, she had an engaging personality, and when she said Depend was "…protection both Mom and I could both live with" sales skyrocketed. Allyson later started a foundation to raise money for research into urological diseases for seniors.

Yet the taboo was so powerful, it took seven years before two of the three major television networks agreed to run adult diaper commercials in prime time.

Because Depend was the first brand to break through that barrier, it has remained the market leader for over 30 years.

One of the surest signs a product has become normalized is when the mainstream media parodies the commercials. Like Saturday Night Live did:

It's believed by 2020, the adult diaper market will grow by 50%.


Another recently broken taboo was on the hush-hush subject of menstruation.

More specifically, how menstruation is depicted in feminine hygiene commercials.

While there are many on the air, feminine hygiene ads never actually show or mention the word "blood".

In order to demonstrate the absorbency of a tampon or a sanitary pad, a typical ad uses blue liquid.

(Image Source: phashionistas)

Presumably because blue is an inoffensive colour.

And a 2015 worldwide study revealed that across the board, blue is the world's favourite colour.

But UK-based maxi pad company Bodyform decided that blue simply wouldn't do.

Last year, they came out with a commercial titled "Blood" – aimed at breaking the taboos surrounding menstruation and sport.

It was the first-ever feminine hygiene commercial to reference blood.

Because it broke through that taboo, judges awarded it a Gold Lion at the Cannes International Advertising Festival.

A wider campaign called "Red.Fit" empowers women to stay active during their periods and to understand which products make it easiest to do so.

It was a historic moment in feminine hygiene advertising.

A broken taboo that was nearly 50 years in the making.

Of course, not all taboos have to do with sex or bodily functions.


In February of 2009, Esquire Magazine broke a long-standing magazine taboo by gluing a small ad booklet onto its cover.

(Image Source: esquireclassics)

That violated a long-standing guideline from the American Society of Magazine Editors. As a matter of fact, "Don't print ads on covers" was the first guideline on its list.

In April, ESPN and Entertainment Weekly ran ad flaps on their covers. Scholastic Parent & Child magazine actually ran ads in the bottom right hand corner of its covers for various juice and smoothie brands.

Then that same year, Time Inc, the largest magazine publisher in North America, ran a Verizon Wireless ad on the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated.

The small single-line ad ran in the mailing label area, saying "For best results, use Verizon" then noted a page number that led to a traditional ad within the magazine.

(Image Source: adage)

A senior Time magazine executive said, "You can either say this is a ground-breaking decision to put ads on covers after 91 years in business, or you can say this is a relatively modest reference that catches up to what's going on in the industry."

A former Time editor didn't share either sentiment, saying the ad marked the further erosion of Time Inc's standards.

For nearly 100 years, newspaper and magazines have quarantined advertising from editorial.

But times are changing and print publications are running into revenue problems. Front cover ads are read by a higher number of readers than regular ads – and therefore magazines can charge a premium.

It was a circular moment in media history:

Running ads on covers became a front-cover story.


A hat company in Germany broke an advertising taboo recently.

The Hut Weber company ran a print ad that showed two sketches side by side. The first was the outline of a face with the iconic hairline and moustache of Adolph Hitler.

The second showed the same face with a bowler hat on, becoming, in effect, Charlie Chaplin.

The caption under the Charlie Chaplin face said:

(Image Source: adsoftheworld)

It was the first advertisement in Germany to break the long-standing taboo against using the Nazi leader in any form of marketing.

Needless to say, the ad generated a lot of controversy.


Another long-held taboo was broken in Britain recently.

A company called LoveHoney, the UK's largest sex toy retailer, broke ground by advertising on television at ten o'clock in the morning.

The ad showed a fully dressed couple embracing in a passionate kiss for about 20 seconds. As they pull away from each other, they say: Have a good day at work.

The commercial was approved by TV networks with the stipulations that it couldn't advertise any specific sex toy, nor could it use any hint of overt sex in the messaging.

Even though the founders of LoveHoney were happy to be the company to break the taboo, they also said the rules were hypocritical.

You can use sex to sell almost any product on TV.

Unless that product is a sex toy…


When Woodbury's Facial Soap broke the sex taboo in 1911, it was a big deal.

Advertising icon Albert Lasker called it one of the three big beats of modern marketing.

While it was the first advertising taboo to be broken, it certainly wasn't the last.

It must be noted that advertisers are clearly hesitant to break taboos. With toilet paper, condoms and adult diapers, they were late to the party.

But once those taboos were broken, it didn't take long for those products to become major advertising categories.

If history has taught us anything, the most recent broken taboos will soon become familiar faces. We'll surely see more ads on the covers of magazines and front pages of newspapers. Sex toy advertising may soon become humdrum and feminine hygiene companies may be close to retiring their blue liquid.

The most unsettling story today was the German hat company that chose to use Hitler in its marketing. Does that mean advertisers will begin to mine the wounds of history for attention?

Time will tell.

And if they do, it's going to be no bed of roses…

…when you're under the influence.