The Ad That Got America to Brush Its Teeth

James Logie

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I’m sure that most days begin and end with you brushing your teeth.

This is such an automatic procedure now that you probably don’t even think about it.

But at the turn of the 20th century, this was not the case for most Americans. But one ad campaign, created by one of the godfathers of advertising, would forever change that.

This is the story of how something as simple as toothpaste became a necessity in every home in the country.

Who Was Claude C. Hopkins?

Hopkins was one of the pioneers of advertising.

He believed that an excellent product could stand on its own legs, and the surrounding hubbub was often created by the best salesperson.

Today, we might call that hype and word-of-mouth — both of which are invaluable for advertising and marketing.

Hopkins may have also been the original A/B tester. He would often test headlines, offers, and slogans against one another to see which was the most successful.

He would use all these analytics and results to hone in the message for whatever product he was selling.

This vastly improved the results of the ads and marketing and made the process more cost-effective for the client.

Who Was Using Toothpaste?

The concept of brushing your teeth was not very common for most people in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

For this reason, toothpaste was also not a common item.

You were not likely to find it in your local store, and door-to-door salesmen were the ones that pushed sales.

But they didn’t do too well.

Most people couldn't grasp the concept or see the benefit of using this foreign product — despite the enormous amount of dental problems in the country.

It's not that no one was brushing their teeth, it just wasn’t the vast majority as it is today.

But what if this product could be improved on and made people feel as if they had to have it?

Changing the Toothpaste Game

The toothpaste that existed at the time was unpleasant, chalky, and felt like brushing your teeth with clay. This was about to change.

Hopkins was approached by an old friend who claimed he had improved on traditional toothpaste. The new paste was more pleasurable to use as it was frothy and light.

And the most important thing: It now had a minty flavor.

This toothpaste was called Pepsodent, and if anyone could market this properly, it would be Hopkins.

But Hopkins was not exactly enamored with this prospect. Toothpaste sales were pretty much non-existent, and door-to-door salesman were risking their livelihoods by trying to peddle it.

Hopkins would look back on his past marketing successes and apply that to marketing his new product — but this time with a unique approach.

Just Run Your Tongue Across Your Teeth

One of the most important things that Hopkins pioneered with marketing was using a “trigger.” How would he do this with a person’s mouth?

His solution was to point out how dirty and grimy one’s teeth were. People were told to “run their tongue across their teeth” to feel the grime that had built up on them (which we know as plaque today).

The grime on the teeth was explained to be a film, and it would lead to decay and gum troubles.

Grimy teeth were the trigger. So what was the solution?

The act of brushing teeth was the solution. This would remove the grime, protect the teeth, and combat any form of decay. Sounds good, but one thing was throwing people off—the minty flavor.

No one had ever experienced the sensation of mint on their teeth like this before.

How could Hopkins combat the resistance to the minty freshness?

Routine and Reward

The strong mint was jarring for some people, and not always the most pleasant experience.

The way around this was promoting the fact that the mint flavor was the sign that the toothpaste was working and getting rid of that film.

Hopkin's idea was that toothpaste wasn’t much different from a beauty product.

This new toothpaste was the “creator of beauty” to get rid of that film and grime to leave the mouth fresh and new.

Teeth could be pretty.

Another part of this was the frothing that happens when brushing your teeth. The frothing agents didn’t provide any specific benefit, but it was another indicator that the toothpaste was working.

Like the mint, the frothing was another “reward.”

This created the “Pepsodent Habit Loop,” which is about routine and reward, and it’s an incredibly powerful marketing approach.

The simple execution of this is:

  • The cue: the feeling of grime and film on the teeth
  • The routine: the brushing of the teeth to deal with the grime
  • The reward: the frothing, minty sensation that leaves your mouth fresh and sparkling clean

The Success of the Campaign

Toothpaste is of course important for dental health, but as far as dealing with the film, it might not have been that necessary.

The film on teeth still develops whether or not you brush. It’s a naturally occurring membrane and can be dealt with by rubbing your finger on your teeth, eating an apple, or brushing without toothpaste.

This wasn’t the point. People now had a cue to take action and brush.

They drove the idea into the mind of the public that at the first sensation of grime on the teeth; they needed this new type of toothpaste.

It was all psychological. People continued to brush as their brains wanted the reward of the minty fresh feeling which they had begun to crave.

And craving promotes habit.

This lead to a meteoric rise in the product as no one wanted grime — which they had been dealing with for decades — they now wanted clean.

Commoners and celebrities now promoted the phrase “Pepsodent smile.”

Three weeks after they released it, demand went through the roof. In three years it went international, and just a decade after it was released — the number of people using it went from 7% to 65%.

In the 1930s, it was one of the top brands of toothpaste in the world, and Hopkins was a millionaire.

One other important strategy

There was one more key marketing ploy here that Hopkins had been using for years: free samples.

When he approached people about this new style of toothpaste, they were usually apprehensive. But who can refuse a free offering?

He just wanted to show what his product could do, and no one could deny it was working with its foaming action and minty taste.

Hopkins wouldn’t even mention it was for sale or how much it cost. He let the product speak for itself by introducing the cue (their grimy teeth), which they would never forget.

Hopkins didn’t try to sell them, he just gave reasons why they should try toothpaste. They offered a ten-day trial, so there was no risk to the consumer — only reward.

Eventually, all the other competitors copied what the Pepsodent company was doing, and dental hygiene as we know it changed forever.

And it all started because people weren’t sure about mint.

Photo by Goby on Unsplash

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.

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