From the earliest days of Johnson & Johnson, the Johnson brothers recognized the importance of advertising, and Robert Wood Johnson the first was often personally very involved in the development of ads for the Company’s products…sometimes too involved, the people at the advertising agency felt. Johnson had excellent instincts about what would and wouldn’t work, and he kept J. Walter Thompson and his advertising agency busy with his many suggestions and changes. Thompson and Johnson were friends, and Thompson handled the Johnson & Johnson account personally. (Robert Wood Johnson: The Gentleman Rebel, by Lawrence G. Foster, pp. 50-51) From the beginning, the Company’s ads always were good and some of them were brilliant, with specific ad campaigns becoming a part of popular culture or breaking new ground.
In keeping with the times – and depending on the product being advertised -- some of the earliest ads were wordy and explanatory,
Example of an Explanatory Ad Typical of the Era
some were sentimental,
while others were brief and to the point.
However, it was with ads for Zonweiss, an early tooth-whitening tooth cream, that the Company really got creative.
This ad for Zonweiss is fairly simple, though eye-catching, with a black background and a smiling sun getting its teeth brushed by a small, flying cherub. The text of the ad stressed the “snowy-white creamy Zonweiss” in its blue jar (the blue enhanced the whiteness of the tooth cream), and included some quotes from satisfied customers – including a U.S. Senator! -- praising the product. The subtle (or not so subtle) inference that could be drawn from the illustration was that Zonweiss tooth cream would make your teeth blindingly white, as bright as the rays of the sun in the picture.
Here’s another ad for Zonweiss from the 1800s, which appeared in my previous Zonweiss post, with a cartoon showing hat-wearing bears enthusiastically brushing the teeth of a baby bear. If the bears weren’t enough, the ad included a poem:
“When pearly rows of Teeth are seen
In beauty glistening white and clean,
No need to ask about the cause,
Or moralize on Nature’s laws,
But let your thoughts at once incline
To ZONWEISS, perfect, pure and fine
A Dental Cream of cleansing power,
That grows in favor every hour.”
Zonweiss "Gulliver's Travels" Ad
There were Zonweiss ads with Halloween witches and Ancient Greek gods sitting on clouds. One of the most wildly creative Zonweiss ads is this one from 1887, which looks like it came straight out of a Victorian children’s book illustration. The hand-drawn ad shows a scene from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, in which Gulliver is tied down to the ground by the Lilliputians. However, in the ad, they’re not menacing him; they are brushing his teeth with Zonweiss. The accompanying product testimonial is from Gulliver himself, and says: “The efforts of these little fellows to find uses for my toilet articles particularly their attempt to scrub my teeth with my tooth brush and Zonweiss amused me greatly and I was pleased to see that they appreciated an article of such rare excellence as Zonweiss! – Gulliver”
Zonweiss Tooth Cream in its Blue Jar
So what spurred Johnson & Johnson to make such a departure from its usual advertising style and use these unusual and eye-catching ads for this product? Most likely, it’s because Zonweiss never really caught on with consumers. The Company made Zonweiss from 1887 until 1935, even packaging it in what was said to be the first squeezable toothpaste tube, but that still wasn’t enough to catch people’s attention…so the Johnson brothers tried to make up for that lack of attention with these fanciful ads.