Truth can be defined as “the quality or state of being based on fact”. And we hold someone as truthful if they only say what is true.
A lie, on the other hand, is a statement someone makes knowing that it is not true.
Modern advertising – and in some ways, modern education – works not exactly by telling lies, but rather by diluting the truth about aspects of reality with bland and vague concepts from which the truth can be inferred, but that, for the most part, say nothing to us about our lives.
Often, truth can only be extracted out of modernity sideways, which obviously means that many – lulled by euphemism, conditioning, conformity – are left out, unable to truly grasp the essentials of life.
THE TRUTH IN LISTERINE
Listerine, the mouth washer, was invented in 1879 by Dr. Joseph Lawrence, and baptized in honour of Joseph Lister, the British surgeon that, under the spell of Pasteur’s findings, was first inspired to do surgeries in sterilized operating rooms and thus drastically reduced mortality rates.
In 1914, Listerine mouthwash starts to be sold over the counter and marketed as an “oral germ killer”.
However, according to Listerine’s website, it is from 1920 onwards, when the brand renames bad breath as “halitosis”, that sales took really off.
I have no wish to discuss the merits of Listerine, but rather the refreshingly truthful quality of its advertising last century.
A LEMON IN THE GARDEN OF LOVE
“While other girls, no more attractive than I, were invited everywhere, I sat home alone. While they were getting engaged or married, I watched men come and go.”, the girl in the advert confessed.
But one day, a “chance remark showed me humiliating truth. My own worst enemy was my breath. The very thing I hated in others, I myself was guilty of.”
Of course, the outcome of this tender tale is predictable, the young woman discovers Listerine and love ensues.
The moral of the story is not, of course, about the effectiveness of Listerine. The truth shines in this advert because it attempts no watered-down catechism about the necessity of being healthy, but it instead teaches a concrete lesson about the difficulty of finding a sexual partner if you have bad breath. You want to be healthy because health will improve your chances to find a partner. You want to kill germs in your mouth because they will ultimately lead you to a lonesome unhappiness.
In 1934, the copywriters and artists working for Listerine went even further, swept away by romanticism.
THE HONEYMOON THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN HERS
Helen had been engaged with Jim for two years, and yet, as noted on the gut-wrenching letter, it was Martha that was leaving with the lucky fellow for an idyllic honeymoon.
What Helen tragically ignored was that Jim had broken off the engagement because of her persistent bad breath.
Helen is apparently still looking for an explanation for Jim’s cruel decision. Poor thing.
STILL AN ADORER
But it’s not all about finding someone.
Once you find a companion, you need to keep it, and once again being healthy improves your chance of success. Or, if you put it the other way around, bad breath or any other unpleasant sign of unhealthiness, will make it harder for you to cling to happiness.
ENOUGH OF OBLIQUE TRUTH
Unless it is done with a clear tinge of humour (which again dilutes the clarity of the message), today’s mainstream advertising refrains from explicitly mentioning that this or that product is designed to help you find and seduce someone. And, God forbid, no advertiser would explicitly link causally faults such as bad breath with unrequited love and the existential despair of loneliness and humiliation.
Of course, the truth about these matters is implied in most ads. But words matter. For some, it is important to hear clear words, with unambiguous meanings, impossible to dismiss or ignore.
Fear of offending, idealism and a certain romanticizing of the human condition often gang-up to obscure reality and prevent us from clearly understanding…