Change is in the air. Old ways of doing things are falling by the wayside. Every single business is experiencing massive upheaval in the face of a rapidly changing technological landscape. Disruption is the new normal for most industries and marketing is no exception.

But, what many don’t seem to realize is that marketers have always sought to disturb the status quo and introduce new ideas that penetrate the collective unconscious. If left to their own devices people are usually disinclined to break out of their regular patterns of thought and behavior. It’s no easy task to open their eyes to a new way of seeing things.

Long before breakthroughs like marketing automation, augmented reality, or even the internet itself started upending businesses, marketers were finding ways to shake things up, innovate, and create entirely new industries seemingly out of thin air. Some of the products we use every single day come to us thanks to the disruptive genius of marketers.

A Breath of Fresh Air

When the antiperspirant Odorono was first offered for sale in Atlantic city in the summer of 1912, there was no doubt the revolutionary new product worked and could fill a very real need. Think about this for a second: at that time the average American bathed just once a week. But, in that era the notion that perspiring could or should be controlled was foreign to most.

In the prim Victorian times in which antiperspirants first arose, bodily fluids were hardly spoken of in private, let alone inquired about at the drugstore. Sweating through one’s clothes was considered an unavoidable consequence of strict dress codes and humid summer days.

Market research commissioned by Odorono at the time found that their product was widely known of, but that two thirds of people thought they had no need for it. It was a conundrum and the agency on the case took a novel and disruptive approach to tackle the problem.

In a now famous ad that appeared in a 1919 edition of the Ladies’ Home Journal, Odorno subtly implied that certain social indiscretions are too sensitive to be mentioned directly. Almost as a public service, the new hygiene product clued consumers into the fact they might be perspiring offensively and not even know it.

In response to the ad, 200 readers canceled their subscriptions and its creators were told they had just insulted every woman in America. But, they also achieved a true disruption. Odorono sales jumped by 112 percent, and a new industry was ignited.

The Whisper That Echoed

This technique, which would be dubbed “whisper copy,” relied on subtle cues to broach delicate topics and encourage consumers to reconsider long held notions. It would be used again to inform would-be-suitors that their bad breath was harming their romantic chances and sell bottles of Listerine to remedy the situation. It is a classic illustration of the advertising truism that you don’t sell the product, you sell the need.

The names of the very conditions are sometimes the product of ad copy. Lifebuoy soap popularized the term “body odor,” Gillette made every man aware of the “five o’clock shadow,” and it was Alberto VO5 had woman recognize the need to repair their “split ends.”

Halitosis was already a term in medical textbooks before mouthwash came along, but it was Listerine that realized its potential to make their case. Their own research showed that advertising centered around halitosis, mentioning it by name, was four times more successful than similar ads. Listerine discovered the market and immediately dominated it, positioning itself as the top-of-mind name in germ-free mouths… and it pretty much still holds that distinction.

Constructive Disruption

Disruption and innovation aren’t easy. Mindsets and interests become deeply entrenched. Market leaders want to hold onto their leads. But, those that identify opportunities for radical change and find a way to bring them to life reap incredible rewards.

Disruption sounds like a destructive, violent process, but if history has taught us anything, it should also be seen as a path to new beginnings, unexploited opportunities, and thankfully, a better smelling crowd on the Atlantic City boardwalk.