Advertising was instrumental in pushing this cultural shift forward. Early campaigns for Zonweiss dating from the 1880s focused on the product, itself. Original ads incorporated the toothpaste into poems and classic stories, yet it remained unpopular. Johnson & Johnson responded by manufacturing its first promotional product, distributing intricate Zonweiss clocks to pharmacists who sold the paste. In the early 20th century, ads for JOHNSON’S Toothpaste included testimonials and emphasized the science of oral care, with one 1922 ad proclaiming “Let science cleanse your teeth.” Yet even these inventive strategies couldn’t convince Americans to buy toothpaste. So advertisers changed the game by transferring their focus to consumers, themselves. Campaigns played on Americans’—in particular, women’s—new fears of bad breath, less than white teeth and the social isolation they could cause.
Despite these concerted efforts, product sales remained relatively low until the end of World War II, when most Americans began brushing their teeth every day. The conflict brought many young men under a regimented military routine, and within it was regular tooth brushing. Soldiers then took these habits home. Moreover, amidst the war, a shortage of silk for parachutes forced manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson to start producing floss from nylon, pushing its price down even further. In the 1950s, as consumer goods reached new heights, toothbrushes, including TEK toothbrushes from Johnson & Johnson, became popular.
Later advertisements, like this one from LISTERINE®, don’t even feature the product, it simply emphasized the social shame associated with not using it.
Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives