LISTERINE® Antiseptic Meets the Silver Age of Comic Books
Infographics are everywhere today. They’re colorful, easy to understand, they present information in a graphic, entertaining way, and they appeal to people who learn better visually rather than through the written word alone. If you need to educate and entertain at the same time, then infographics are your tool of choice. But how could you educate people visually before the modern era of infographics? You could do a comic book -- and that’s just what the LISTERINE® Brand did during the Silver Age of comics in 1956.
The Silver Age of comics began in 1956 (the year the LISTERINE® comic book was published) and it marked the continued development of classic superheroes like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, as well as popular characters like Casper the Friendly Ghost and Archie, Betty, Veronica and their friends from Archie Comics. Always on the lookout for innovative ways to reach people, the Warner-Lambert Pharmaceutical Company (which made LISTERINE® Antiseptic in that era), decided to take advantage of the popularity of comic books and tell the LISTERINE® story visually.
So in 1956, they released a comic book called “Stepping Stones to Success.” The comic book followed two high school students who achieved success in school through (you guessed it) using LISTERINE® Antiseptic. But perhaps the most enjoyable part of the book -- for those who enjoy Johnson & Johnson history and health care history -- is the presentation of Louis Pasteur and Sir Joseph Lister in classic comic book hero-style.
What’s the LISTERINE® “Stepping Stones to Success” comic book like? Picture The Archies crossed with a vintage 1950s high school science film. The story begins by taking us quickly through the history behind antiseptic surgery, which led to the formulation of LISTERINE® in 1879 as a surgical disinfectant that was milder and less irritating than the carbolic acid used by Lister. From the invention of the first microscope, the story panels transition to a dashing looking Louis Pasteur conducting his experiments showing that germs invisible to the naked eye were the cause of infection.
In classic comic book style, the next panel shows a square-jawed young Sir Joseph Lister (looking a bit like Clark Kent without the glasses) hitting the books, no doubt reading Louis Pasteur’s findings. In the next panel, an older and more historically accurate looking Lister is shown applying what he learned as he uses his antiseptic method to operate on a very modern 1950s-looking patient. Bow ties make a significant appearance in the comic book: not only do Pasteur and Lister wear them, but so does the young high school hero of the story. (It was the 1950s, after all.)
The story then jumps forward to 1956 (which actually doesn’t look a whole lot different from the way the artist drew the 1800s), where it follows Jim, a high school student who’s having trouble gaining a regular spot on the football team. Naturally, after using LISTERINE® Antiseptic, he’s not only on the team but he scores a touchdown. That’s not the only trouble Jim was having with the football team: alert readers will notice that the number on his jersey keeps disappearing and reappearing from panel to panel. Meanwhile, another student named Joan is having trouble keeping friends because, in a nod to the famous 20th century LISTERINE® advertising campaigns, her less than fresh breath is driving them away.
Luckily for Joan, her science class that day just happened to be covering the science behind bad breath, or halitosis -- a phrase chosen by the Lambert brothers of the Lambert Pharmacal Company in 1921 as a more scientific-sounding way to describe bad breath.
After that very timely science lesson, Joan adjourns to the school bathroom to use a mouthwash (the product’s packaging isn’t shown, but of course it’s LISTERINE® Antiseptic).
A few weeks later with her halitosis and popularity problems solved, Joan meets Jim at a football practice (at which his number miraculously has returned to the front of his jersey), and he immediately asks her to the prom. The comic book concludes with Joan and Jim dancing at the high school prom. While they’re dancing, Joan asks Jim if he’d like to meet her parents – who, in another of the remarkable coincidences that populate the story -- just happen to be at the dance with their daughter.
Instead of expressing the brief flash of panic that might accompany Joan’s request in the real-world, Jim cooly replies “Gladly, Joan,” and the meeting with Joan’s stern, imposing and definitely not-bow-tie-wearing father is carried off without an issue.
Interestingly enough, the final page of the comic book features a reminder for readers to look for news of an upcoming contest to celebrate the 75th anniversary of LISTERINE®, which was first formulated in 1879.
So why did the LISTERINE® Brand create a comic book to get its message across? By using a visual format, the brand could tell its story quickly and memorably, informing and entertaining readers at the same time. And since people are hardwired to respond to stories, telling the story of Joan and Jim was yet another way to make the information especially memorable to readers. (In fact, the human need to tell and listen to stories is one of the things that makes social media – like this blog! -- so popular today.) So the LISTERINE® comic book combined two very modern, up-to-the-minute trends -- infographics and storytelling -- but it did so more than a half-century ago. If the creators of the book could have foreshadowed social media, no doubt they would have worked that in as well.
The LISTERINE® Brand is known for pioneering innovative advertising, which included its famous “Often a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride” campaign, as well as a groundbreaking television show sponsored by the brand that featured guitar legend Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford. And if that wasn’t enough, they even had digital animation pioneers Pixar create some of their television commercials in the early 1990s. Here's an episode of the LISTERINE® sponsored TV show starring Les Paul and Mary Ford:
So although the “Stepping Stones to Success” comic book may seem a bit quirky and unusual to readers today, creating a comic book during the Silver Age of comics stands firmly in the history of the LISTERINE® Brand’s use of innovative advertising as a way to reach its audiences.
Thanks to J.V.A. for sending me a copy of the comic!