Mouthing Off

Posted May 7, 2014, under Ad Absurdum

We’ve talked before about ads for white teeth, but that article barely scraped the surface of the big business that is dental advertising.

Proper dental hygiene is a big deal, not just because toothaches hurt, but because the mouth is literally the gateway to the rest of the body, and problems that begin there can become systemic. For example, there is a condition called endocarditis where bacteria from the mouth gets into the bloodstream and eventually attacks the heart. We are not medical professionals and this may be a gross oversimplification, but to us, that says that failure to floss puts one at risk of heart failure.

Pretty scary thought, but humans excel at ignoring abstract problems until those problems kick them in the teeth. That means dentists and toothpaste manufacturers have to kick first.


Nothing New

This has, of course, been going on for a long time, probably since everyone learned they only get one set of adult teeth. (Seriously, how cruel a fake-out are baby teeth, anyhow? What the hell, evolution?)

There are reports of various tooth-cleaning pastes used in China, India, and Egypt going back 6,000 years or more; and those of you inclined toward trivia probably know that the ancient Romans are said to have put their own urine into service as a mouthwash.

Despite this, the Romans were famous for getting their mack on. Image source

More recently: the American Dental Association, formed in 1859, has spearheaded many advertising campaigns over the years.

Because not everyone responds well to abstract future pain concepts, an early and widespread advertising tactic was to appeal to the promise of pleasure instead.

Bad breath and dingy teeth make getting dates difficult, as correctly pointed out by mid-20th Century advertising. Colgate in particular went to town with this.

This tactic continues to present day; one product — Close-Up — has had “improved kissability” as the central conceit of their entire brand — since 1967.

While most people realize that making a love connection depends on a lot more than what brand of toothpaste you’re using, there’s at least one dude who has filed suit because extended use of Close-Up brand toothpaste had somehow not resulted in feminine companionship.

No word on whether he has filed a similar suit regarding Unilever’s Axe products.

A clear sign of proper oral hygiene is and always has been bright white teeth. While we have found evidence of people knowing this all the way back in Ancient Rome, no relevant print ads from that time turned up in our search!

There have been innumerable ad series demonizing common staining agents, and touting various products — from “dentrifices” (pastes and powders) to mouthwashes to professional whitening services — as the solution to the marks of our foul, coffee-drinking ways.


Get Them When They’re Young

Another tack is direct education of children in proper oral hygiene, encouraging dental care from a young age. Many major toothpaste manufacturers have oral health education programs aimed at teachers, parents, and the children themselves.

Studies of the efficacy of these programs have shown mixed results, but such efforts remain laudable even if one cynically views them as PR-driven tax breaks under a veneer of humanitarianism.

Naturally, the ADA is also at the forefront of these educational efforts, even going so far as to have an animated mascot, complete with comic books, picture books and cartoons encouraging children to take care of their teeth, and teaching them best practices for permanent pearly whites.

The mascot they chose is a Tyrannosaurus Rex, basically the one creature in the history of Earth whose forelimbs could not possibly reach its mouth. We’re just not sure how well this plan was thought through.


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