The Foul Stench of Smelling Good
Catch another whiff of our March podcast, as we ask people why they started using deodorant.
Think back to when you started going through puberty. Among the many physiological changes, you probably noticed that you smelled different. Even if the smell didn’t seem particularly bad, parents, peers, and especially advertisers might have told you otherwise. That was when most of us started wearing deodorant.
This month’s episode of the Distillations podcast explores the history of deodorant as told through advertising. In our research we discovered that deodorant companies have been convincing people to buy their products for more than a century using the same basic tactic: shame.
A 1919 full-page ad in Ladies Home Journal shows a man and a women embracing on a terrace. The text beneath explains that any woman who doesn’t wear Odorono (as in “Odor! Oh, no!”) is in danger of being rejected by men for an unladylike stench. Things have only slightly changed since then. A recent television ad for Secret deodorant depicts two businesswomen in an elevator psyching each other up before a pitch. The commercial implies that women can accomplish anything, as long as they don’t stink.
Most Americans use some type of deodorant, and everyone seems to have a different story about the stuff. Podcast associate producer Rigoberto Hernandez hit the streets of Philadelphia to interview coworkers and strangers about what caused them to start using deodorant.
Spring Greeney, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a 2016–2017 research fellow at CHF, picked up deodorant thanks to a rude classmate in sixth grade:
Greeney: I had two best friends. We were sitting around at the lunch table eating lunch, and one of them said, “Hmm, what is that smell?” [sniff, sniff] And he went and put his nose around the table and he said, “Oh, it’s you, Spring.”
So I didn’t actually quite understand what he meant but I started to be curious. And after a few more comments I figured out that he was referring to what we would call today body odor. So, I started stealing my sister’s deodorant.
Hernandez: Did you tell her?
Hernandez: Why not?
Greeney: I was embarrassed! I was embarrassed that I was going through puberty, and then I was embarrassed that I was taking her stuff.
Adiel Levine, a receptionist at CHF, has started teaching his 9-year-old son about deodorant:
Hernandez: You have a son, right? You have two sons, actually. One of them is of an age that—how are you going to talk to him?
Levine: It already came up actually, yesterday. His teacher very unceremoniously announced in front of the class, “You need to start wearing deodorant.” Which is just untrue, he hasn’t hit puberty yet. He hasn’t really started developing body odor outside of just needing to bath, as any human does. But he seems enthusiastic about it, so mainly I just make a joke out of it. Like he’s using his mother’s Tom’s of Maine stuff, and I told him, “Are you sure you don’t want to try a magical salt crystal? It works with the power of belief.”
A man at Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, who asked not to be named, started using deodorant in an attempt to attract the opposite sex:
Man: Yes, I remember first using deodorant when I was a preteen. I was about 12 years old.
Hernandez: What made you decide to start using it?
Man: Well, I began to be aware of the fact that when you grow hair out of the armpits it does emit odor, especially when you start to perspire. I was interested in the females, and I wanted to be acceptable in their presence. That inspired me to use it.
Hernandez: Did you buy it yourself?
Man: Actually, my father, I borrowed his. My father had a whole shelf filled with deodorant. So I started using the deodorant he collected. It was Old Spice, I remember Old Spice.
Hernandez: Do you still use that one?
Man: Oh, I use Old Spice. I probably use Old Spice, yes, and also that soap Irish Spring. I remember seeing those commercials as a kid, and they made me more conscious of the need to be aware of bodily hygiene and using deodorant to deal with the issues of being a man and the odors that come with the growing of hair.
Mauricio Alvarez, 29, needs to have Axe deodorant wherever he goes:
How often do I apply it? Man, I put it on every day in the morning. And at night—I shower every night—and I always put on deodorant. Even though I go to sleep, I always put on deodorant. Obviously, if I’m at a place where I can’t get to home and I have a spray deodorant with me, I’ll just spray really quick if there’s any smell. I have deodorant at work; I have deodorant in my car and at home. I am very good with deodorant. I like to smell good.
For Alexander Geehr, 18, using Axe is a right of passage:
As a teenage boy, you’re influenced if you see a commercial on TV: “Hey, this deodorant is going to get you a bunch of girls.” More than likely you’re going to go to the store and at least look at it. I mean, that’s the way that branding works now.
You see that as children and they say, “Everyone plays with this toy, Nerf guns,” and everyone had a Nerf-gun phase, because that was super cool. Bright colors; they shoot bullets. . . . Everyone went through that phase. Everyone went through the Lego phase. I guess Axe is just like the new phase for boys.
Hillary Mohaupt, CHF’s social media specialist, recalls the complications of avoiding sweat stains:
I was wearing boy’s shirts because it would cover up the sweat stains. I don’t know if it is at all related to the fact that I am not a straight woman, but when I look at pictures of myself when I was 12 or 13, I think I look less straight and more gender-bendy than I think I meant to. But it wasn’t because I was exploring a gender identity; it was just that I didn’t want to have sweat stains! And they didn’t make shirts like that for girls that I felt comfortable in. So I think it was probably partly coincidence, partly correlation; not so much causation, I guess.
To hear more about the history of deodorant, check out “The Smell of Shame” at podcast.distillations.org.