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Opinion: That odor isn’t someone in need of ‘whole-body’ deodorant — it’s the smell of money

Opinion by Bill Carter

(CNN) — The era of the “full-body” deodorant (or “whole-body,” depending on the marketing campaign) has arrived. All the big deodorant giants are in: Secret, Dove, Old Spice, Axe, on and on. That tells you all you need to know. There’s gold in them thar smells.

In fact, following your nose has often been a path to vast riches. At least for those skilled enough to market solutions to malodorous — or even potentially malodorous — parts of American bodies.

The latest trend has gone all in. In near ubiquitous marketing campaigns, on radio, TV, online and anywhere else people still gather to be bombarded by messaging, American consumers are being harangued by a phalanx of odor-centric companies to believe that what they’ve been doing so far to disin-scent-ivize their various corporeal parts has not been nearly enough.

Really, all anyone has ever needed to capitalize on this area (or these areas) of olfactory concern has been to play on the insecurity of consumers about their personal hygiene. Having long ago covered individual specific areas, from mouths, to feet and everything in between, the next brainstorm was to suggest that, in fact, it’s the entirety of you that isn’t exactly a bed of rose petals.

Lume, which was first into the whole-body market in 2017, has now passed $100 million in annual sales. The whole-body movement is suggesting that any unfortunate area with of the body potentially overactive sweat glands could be a danger zone. And so those with fleshy overhangs of any description — just a belly fold here or there, for example — could be vulnerable.

And the companies marketing these products insist that full-body odor protection means just that. The TV ad for Secret, for example, tells television viewers that it helps prevent unpleasant odors “from your pits to your bits.” And in case that message isn’t sufficiently clear, an actress in the commercial hammers the point home: “And they really do mean everywhere.”

The play to folks who may have added a few extra flaps of skin over the years has been more subtle than overt, but it doesn’t take a marketing genius to observe that physical fitness in the US is not a universal trait. So, there may be a considerable market out there.

The numbers seem to suggest as much. It stands to reason that we all probably smell about the same, but the global deodorant market, which was $26.61 billion in 2023, is projected to grow to $26.96 billion this year and $42.18 billion by 2032. Full-body products have gone the traditional route of first targeting women consumers, then expanding to men, because human insecurity knows no real gender.

But historically, the odor trade, at least in modern times, has seen women as the sweet spot of their business. People have perfumed their bodies since ancient times of course, but the movement to rid the body of odor really started to hit its stride in the early 20th century. A high school student from Cincinnati named Edna Murphey is credited, at least by Smithsonian Magazine, with a breakthrough product called “Odorono” (as in, “Odor? Oh no!”), which found first success among sweaty visitors to the Atlantic City exposition of 1912.

The original ads in newspapers for Odorono are typically appalling in their shameless exploitation of women’s vulnerability: “The most humiliating moment of my life — when I heard the cause of my unpopularity with men.”

Typical, because it was a recurring theme. A later ad in the Ladies Home Journal cited by the Smithsonian:

“A woman’s arm! Poets have sung of it, great artists have painted its beauty. It should be the daintiest, sweetest thing in the world. And yet, unfortunately, it isn’t always.”

“Quick: get me that Odorono!”

The year after that ad ran, sales of Odorono soared 112%, the magazine writes.

At least a case could be made that deodorant has become a truly useful product, with advances in antiperspirants leading to widespread use, and satisfaction with the product.

Other odor advances have had less stellar track records. Many early mouthwashes were little more than drinkable (within limits) perfumes. Listerine, which did eventually gain support from dentists, originally sold itself — and still does — on how awful it tastes. (Its original alternate use was as a floor cleaner.) Only when marketed as a beauty product essential for women to maintain their appeal did Listerine sales explode.

The less said about early “women’s hygiene” products the better, though maybe the most telling point is that the original big seller in his area — again through an appeal to women afraid to be “shut out from happy married love”— was … Lysol.

Yes, Lysol disinfectant. (They did suggest women dilute the product a bit before applying.)

Other products were even worse. It may be hard to top Dr. Mackenzie’s Arsenical Soap. (Guess what the secret ingredient is.)

From patent medicines to exercise belts to bleach as a cure for Covid, Americans have been subjected through the years to a near endless variety of products to improve hygiene and health. Some of them have even worked. Others, not so much.

Through most of the early years of television, it was impossible to escape the barrage of ads for Geritol especially in shows with special appeal to older viewers like “The Lawrence Welk Show” (though Geritol also had the distinction of being a sponsor for the rigged game show “Twenty-One.”)

The bottled vitamin supplement promising “more iron than a pound of calf’s liver,” piled up sales based on its promise to rid you of “tired blood”— whatever that was. In the 1970’s the Federal Trade Commission went after the company, won a judgment for “gross negligence that bordered on recklessness” and levied a fine for the then-huge sum of $812,000.

You might as well have tried to improve your energy, and your propensity to “poop out at parties,” by downing a few shots of “Vitameatavegimen” in the classic sendup from the “I Love Lucy show” in which she become increasingly tipsy while filming multiple takes of a TV commercial hawking a medicinal potion of some kind.

Lucy never did get through that commercial cleanly because she was looped on its high alcohol content. Geritol was 12% alcohol, which surely had something to do with the unforgettable “I Love Lucy” bit.

We never find out if the business that sold Vitameatavegimen ends up making a fortune, as the companies that sell whole body deodorant seem to be doing. When it comes to marketing to consumers, nobody ever went broke overestimating the smell — or the gullibility — of the American public.

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