Under the Influence

SHAME: The Secret Tool of Marketing

This week on Under The Influence, it's an encore broadcast as we explore one of the most effective marketing strategies ever devised: The use of "Shame." First emerging in the late 1800s, toothpaste ads suggested a fresh mouth could help you attract a mate. But advertisers had a major obstacle to overcome - bad breath and body odour were...
Under the Influence: Shame: The Secret Tool of Marketing (Season 2 Episode 1) - EP - CBC Radio

This week on Under The Influence, it's an encore broadcast as we explore one of the most effective marketing strategies ever devised: The use of "Shame." 

First emerging in the late 1800s, toothpaste ads suggested a fresh mouth could help you attract a mate. But advertisers had a major obstacle to overcome - bad breath and body odour were not socially unacceptable then. So advertisers focused their sizable resources to linking odours to shame, and then shame to product solution.

From bad breath, dandruff and ring-around-the-collar to gray hair, plastic surgery and skin lightening, the strategy of social shame has become the most lucrative selling strategy of all time.

Join us as we peel back the layers of shame in our modern world.

Source: YouTube

It was a startling declaration coming from a sitting President.

After Monica Lewinsky revealed she had sex with the President at the White House, President Clinton went on national television to call her a liar. But seven months later, he would change his story.

In 1995, a tape showing actress Pamela Anderson having sex with her new husband, rocker Tommy Lee, caused a media frenzy. 

Source: The Insider.com

Less than four weeks before the debut of her reality show, The Simple Life, a tape surfaced showing Paris Hilton having sex with her boyfriend. 

Paris Hilton Simple Life.jpg
Source: hollywood0nlinetv.blogspot.com

Three years later, a sex tape is released to the internet starring Kim Kardashian. 

Source: People.com

Then, in 2011, another politician makes a startling admission: 

Source: CNN

The death of shame has opened a new door to the world of celebrity. What would have been considered shameful activity in another decade, is today a viable strategy for fame. 

Yet that strategy can only exist in a world where shame is no longer considered appalling. 

But there is another world where shame is critical. 

And that is the world of marketing. 

The strategy of "shame" is one of the most powerful marketing tools in modern times. Fear of being judged by our peers has led to billions of dollars of products being sold. 

Social embarrassment isn't just a mix of humiliation, mortification and distress, it's also a heady cocktail of marketing, strategy and product solutions. And the marketing industry has a vested interest in keeping shame alive and well. 

The use of "social shame" as a marketing tool has a long and interesting history. 

It can be carbon-dated to the industrial revolution, when luxury items first appeared. 

Prior to the industrial revolution, most people lived a rural existence on farms, growing their own food and making their own clothes, so status wasn't a social imperative. Soon, people began judging each other by what they had purchased - and in particular, on personal appearance. 

As this newly discovered "self awareness" spread, advertisers were quick to seize upon it as a marketing strategy. 

One of the earliest brands to take advantage of "social shame" was Sozodont tooth powder. 

The headline of an 1884 print ad said, "Beauty and fragrance are communicated to the mouth by Sozodont." 

Sozodont Toothpaste ad.jpg
Source: flickrhivemind.net

And with that, social status worked its way into advertising. 

It was clear advertisers saw the lucrative possibilities in the linking of shame and solution - they just had to convince the public that body odour was socially unacceptable. 

Prior to that, women believed deodorants were not only unnecessary, but unhealthy. 

Enter Odorono, an underarm deodorant product that prevented female perspiration and eliminated embarrassing odour. Advertising agency J. Walter Thompson began a campaign that tackled the first obstacle to sales - by explaining that blocking perspiration was not unhealthy. 

Print ads also pointed out that Odorono was safe because it was developed by a doctor. 

SOURCE: cladriteradio.com

Sales jumped initially, but then flattened. 

So in 1919, Ordono changed its strategy. It wasn't enough to convince customers that a remedy for perspiration merely existed. 

They had to convince the population that sweating was a serious social embarrassment. 

They did that by framing the issue of perspiration odour as something friends and acquaintances would never talk to you about directly, but were happy to gossip about behind your back. 

Which created an insecurity. 

odorono armhole test.jpg
Source: advintageplus.com

This ad instructed girls to smell of armhole of their dresses, because that was the way they smelled to others. 

Ordorno labelled that smell, quote, "a humiliating odour" and by doing so, attached a feeling of shame. That strategy would fuel sales for decades. 

The era of "critical self consciousness" was in full swing. 

Enter Listerine. 

Listerine was initially used as a floor cleaner, a scalp treatment and even a cure for gonorrhea. Then it was discovered it was good at killing oral germs. There was only one problem: 

Bad breath wasn't an issue. 

Sure, people back then had bad teeth and gum disease, but mouth odour wasn't considered socially offensive. 

But the makers of Listerine asked their chemists to label the condition of bad breath - and they called it "Halitosis." 

It was a golden problem that Lambert's mouthwash could solve. 

From that day forward, the world has been acutely aware of halitosis. And Listerine has been marketed as the product that eliminates it. 

listerine ad %22how's you breath today?%22.jpg
Source: melissabradyking.blogspot.com

The "shame" of bad breath is one of the most lucrative marketing strategies of all time. 

The strategy of shame has been used as the underpinning for many product categories. 

Like coffee: 

Source: YouTube

The shame of Dandruff arrived in 1960: 

Source: YouTube

And let us not forget foot odour: 

Source: YouTube

Then there's detergent. Launched in 1958, Wisk was one of the first liquid laundry detergents. But it was ten years later that Wisk hit on the idea that made it famous: 

Source: YouTube

Wisk promised to remove "Ring Around The Collar" by pouring the detergent directly onto clothing, creating a new use for the product. But it wasn't the men who suffered the shame, it was their wives. 

Source: YouTube

Wisk's "Ring Around The Collar" may have been annoying, but it helped triple sales between 1968 and 1974. The campaign ran successfully for over 30 years. 

Today, the power of shame as marketing tool plays a critical role in categories that weren't even around 50 years ago. 

In countries like the Philippines, for instance, there are many ads for skin-whitening products: 

Source: YouTube

The underlying message is that lighter skinned people are more attractive and achieve greater success. 

In India, the caste system there has historically favoured lighter-coloured skin as a sign of wealth and importance. One research firm recently stated that more skin whitening creams are sold in India than Coca Cola. 

Check out this TV commercial from India: 

Source: YouTube

But when you look closer at the animated product demonstration - you see it promises to lighten the skin colour of a woman's genitals. The slogan: "Freshness that brings out whiteness." 

The commercial created a lot of controversy in India. And by the way, similar products are selling well in the U.S. 

Welcome to the intimate areas of shame in the 21st century. 

Source: YouTube

Clearly, men are not exempt from shame marketing. 

While this recent Axe deodorant campaign uses humour, it cleverly equates excessive perspiration with that most dreaded of male shames; premature ejaculation. 

The anxiety a shame-based message creates increases the need to surrender to a solution. And while inducing shame in young people creates a future market, one of the biggest shame strategies in marketing is centred around growing old. 

Or shall I say, to visibly grow old. 

In our culture, aging is not celebrated. As a result, hair coloring is one of the most popular anti-aging categories. 

Source: YouTube

The very foundation of the cosmetic industry is the tease of a fountain of youth. 

Like this ad for Covergirl featuring Ellen Degeneres: 

Source: YouTube

The humour of Ellen takes the sting out of the pitch, but the shame of aging is still the underpinning of the sell. 

In the last 50 years, could there be a greater signpost for the shame of aging... than plastic surgery. 

Source: YouTube

Plastic surgery dates all the way back to Ancient India in 600 BC. Back then, plastic surgery was employed to restore various body parts that had been damaged due to injury. 

It wasn't until Ancient Rome that surgery became cosmetic - and based in shame. They began by removing scars from the backs of men. 

They were marks of shame, because it suggested that a man had turned his back on battle. 

Over 14 million cosmetic procedures were performed on Americans in 2011. That's an 87% increase since the year 2000. The United States ranks number one in cosmetic surgeries, Brazil is number two, and Canada ranks at number 15. 

Age range purchasing the most plastic surgery: 40 to 54 year olds. 

Women account for 91% of all cosmetic procedures, with Caucasians topping of the list at over 70%.

With shame as a leverage point, the pursuit of less than perfect customers is a bottomless well. In the modern world, shame fuels the need to erase the humiliation and products are solutions. 

When modern marketing first encouraged critical self awareness, it stumbled upon what may be the most lucrative marketing strategy of all time. 

Because in this day and age, it's easy to see that satisfied customers are not as profitable as discontented ones...

... when you're under the influence.