The Product that Dared Not Speak Its Name
Since it earliest days, Johnson & Johnson has made products in response to a variety of needs in society. Some of these products – sterile surgical dressings and sutures, the first First Aid Kits, an antibacterial soap to combat infection, were discussed widely. But there was one equally obvious need that no one wanted to talk about, even though products to address it made life easier for roughly half the population. And that was the need for the first mass produced women’s sanitary products.
Women in the 1920s Buying MODESS®
Before the era of commercially available women’s sanitary protection, women resorted to homemade methods, which were time consuming and less than adequate. In the 1890s, Johnson & Johnson had started making maternity kits, which contained products that were used by physicians and midwives assisting during childbirth...at a time when most babies were born at home and not in hospitals. One of these kits was suggested by Dr. Joseph Brown Cook, who was a surgeon at the New York Maternity Hospital. The kit contained sanitary napkins for the mother. At the same time, Johnson & Johnson started listing sanitary napkins in its 1897 price list. In keeping with what was to become the item's "modesty-based" approach in advertising, it is the only product category on the page without a large-type heading.
1897 Price List, Showing Listing for Sanitary Napkins
These sanitary napkins were said to be the first commercially available disposable sanitary protection products for women in the United States. The earliest ones the Company sold were called “Sanitary Napkins for Ladies” and “Lister’s Towels.”
JOHNSON'S® Sanitary Napkins in Plain Packaging
Lister's Towels Ad Card from 1913 and 1914 Dispenser
The advertisements said “Lister’s Towels, Sanitary for Ladies.” But the problem was that women didn’t want to be seen buying sanitary towels for ladies. So in the 1920s, the Company came out with Nupak, a brand name that could be safely asked for without being descriptive of what the product did. The box had a label on one side with just the brand name and the company name. The other sides of the box were plain so that it could be carried or stored without embarrassment.
NUPAK Ad from 1920s Showing Plain Packaging
This strategy continued when the Company came out with the MODESS® brand. Not only was the product improved, so was the method of purchasing it.
In 1928, Johnson & Johnson started including silent purchase coupons in magazine ads for MODESS®. These could be cut out of the advertisements and silently presented to a salesperson, without the customer ever having to utter the name of the product. The product – still in a plain box so as not to cause undue embarrassment, could then be wrapped up in brown paper and taken home. A Ladies Home Journal ad stated, “In order that Modess may be obtained in a crowded store without embarrassment or discussion, Johnson & Johnson devised the Silent Purchase Coupon presented below. Simply cut it out and hand it to the sales person. You will receive one box of Modess. Could anything be easier?” (Ladies Home Journal ad for MODESS®, June, 1928.)
Sanitary Protection Enters the Jazz Age:
At the same time, the Company was trying to make MODESS® appealing to a younger generation and to stress its cutting-edge modernity. This was done by a series of advertisements in the 1920s that played upon the differences between the younger, jazz-age generation and their parents. The message in the ads was clear: these are not your mother’s sanitary protection products. (Even though your mother was probably using a silent purchase coupon to buy them.)
The ad campaign was called “Modernizing Mother” and was focused around daughters trying to teach their mothers to be less old-fashioned and keep up with the times. Ads had titles such as “Never Mind, Mother – You’ll Learn,” (about playing golf in a short flapper dress); “Step On it, Mother, This Isn’t the Polka,” (about learning new dances); and “Don’t Be a Fraid-Cat, Mother. There’s No Danger,” (about flying in a small propeller plane).
Despite the appeal to a less old-fashioned younger generation, the ads still talked in detail about the selling points of the product. But the same problem still remained: women, even women in the modern 1920s, still didn’t want to read about sanitary protection.
The Company’s eventual solution to that problem became one of the most famous advertising campaigns of the 20th century.