One of the most famous examples of a "solution looking for a problem," was Listerine. Although people have always had elixirs to sweeten their breath, the company made up a medical condition — and then saw its profits go through the roof.
Listerine was first invented in the 1880s, when people were really catching on to the idea that they didn't have to live every day swimming in a pool of bacteria. It wasn't used as a mouthwash at first. Nor was it easily available. You needed a prescription for it – and these were times when it was possible to buy morphine over the counter.
Listerine was applied to wounds or to areas likely to become infected. One major problem area for infections was the mouth. The human mouth is not a sanitary place, and it's a place that needs to be constantly wet and frequently in use. Sterile creams and bandages won't work. Listerine, it turned out, did work very well at killing germs in the mouth. Eventually it made it to over-the-counter status, and people were swigging it down, but not enough for Jordan Wheat Lambert, owner of the company. His son, Gerard, came up with one word that made the product take off – halitosis.
A lot of companies were offering the emerging middle classes ways to cater to their social anxieties. Listerine ran advertisements in many papers talking about the sad, unmarried Edna, who remained single as she watched her friends getting married. It's not that she wasn't a great gal! It's just, she had this condition.
They adapted the word halitosis from halitus, the Latin word for breath, and "osis," which sounded medical. As a result, people began to believe that they had a condition which could be treated with antiseptic, not just an embarrassing flaw that had to be covered up. They felt confident marching into the drugstore – and pretty much nowhere else, since the advertisements stressed that "your closest friends won't tell you" about the problem - and asking for the cure.
Although there are companies today that seem to medicalize problems for their products to solve (hello, yogurt companies!), Listerine was medicalization's first, and most famous success story.
Filed to: SCIENCE HISTORY
Today 12:40pm (1-27-2014)