SWISH BURN LOVE
Reader's Digest US|March 2021
IT’S NOT PRETTY, AND IT’S NOT SWEET: HOW BROWN LISTERINE BECAME NO. 1 IN AMERICANS’ HEARTS AND MOUTHS
Bill Hangley

THE MODERN DRUGSTORE is a land of rainbows. The perky pink of Pepto-Bismol. The soothing green of NyQuil. From aisle to aisle, peppy purples and rootin’-tootin’ reds promise fresh this and happier that.

But lest anyone be lulled into thinking it’s all fun and games, a familiar whiskey-colored face is still there to remind us that it’s still about killing germs.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the product America trusts with its dirtiest jobs: Listerine.

Specifically, the brown stuff. Official name: Listerine Original Antiseptic Mouthwash. It’s the stuff you find in Pop-Pop’s medicine cabinet that tastes like an old shoe. The stuff that’s become an unlikely super star to teenagers, stand-up comedians, and beyond. And the stuff that was named the most trusted mouthwash in the Reader’s Digest annual survey of health and wellness products. In fact, the 4,000 Americans surveyedby the global market research firm Ipsos selected Listerine as the single most trusted brand in their medicine cabinets.

“I like to think that the burning inside my mouth makes that bacteria suffer,” said one person in the survey.

“There ain’t anything more real,” comic Tony Baker recently put it. “The brown Listerine plays zero games. The brown Listerine is all business.”

Listerine’s savage reputation is no accident. The original brown liquid was created in St. Louis in 1879 as an antibacterial cleanser for doctors and dentists. Inventor Joseph Lawrence, MD, named his creation after Joseph Lister, a famous English surgeon who’d pioneered the use of antiseptics.

The product sold modestly at first. But starting in 1920, Listerine’s fortunes skyrocketed, fueled by a single word: halitosis.

That grim-sounding bit of Latin means simply “bad breath.” Listerine made it infamous with an ad campaign as ruthless as the product itself. In magazines and newspapers, full-page spreads showed unfortunate, sad-eyed men and women being ostracized from polite society:

“They talk about you behind your back.” “Don’t offend others needlessly.” “Are you unpopular with your own children?”

Seem ridiculous? Americans didn’t think so. Within seven years of launching its halitosis ads, Listerine’s annual revenues had gone from $115,000 to $8 million, and to this day it remains the nation’s leading mouthwash brand. “Cool Mint” blue is now Listerine’s most popular flavor, but the brown stuff (which has come to be called “Gold” in some adoring circles) comes close behind.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM READER'S DIGEST USView All

Does This DOG Know Whether You Have CANCER?

The canine nose is a marvel of nature. Science believes that a computerized model will save millions of lives.

10+ mins read
Reader's Digest US
March 2021

RESCUE ON THE HIGH RISE BRIDGE

With his truck dangling 70 feet above a roiling river and a storm whipping 50-mph winds, a trapped driver’s only hope is a team of trained emergency rescuers—who are stuck in traffic

9 mins read
Reader's Digest US
March 2021

GO AHEAD, DO NOTHING

We push ourselves to work harder, but taking a break can often fuel a burst in productivity and creativity

3 mins read
Reader's Digest US
March 2021

SWISH BURN LOVE

IT’S NOT PRETTY, AND IT’S NOT SWEET: HOW BROWN LISTERINE BECAME NO. 1 IN AMERICANS’ HEARTS AND MOUTHS

6 mins read
Reader's Digest US
March 2021

A Teacher's Lifesaving Call

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Julia Koch began what was only her second year as a first-grade teacher in a virtual classroom at Edgewood Elementary School in Muskegon Heights, Michigan. One September afternoon a few weeks into the school year, she received a call from Cynthia Phillips, who was having technical difficulties with her granddaughter’s tools for online learning.

2 mins read
Reader's Digest US
March 2021

From Role Model to Runway Model

A disabled activist won’t let Twitter trolls stop her from seeing herself as she really is—a star

3 mins read
Reader's Digest US
March 2021

The FOOD ON YOUR PLATE

I Am Pistachios … An American Success Story

4 mins read
Reader's Digest US
March 2021

24-Karat Nuggets About Gold

13 Things:

3 mins read
Reader's Digest US
March 2021

Rules for Being the Age You Are

Whether you’re 20 or 120, the author’s surprise-filled guide can help most anyone live happily ever

4 mins read
Reader's Digest US
March 2021

Lift Your Own Spirits

We all feel down now and then, especially lately. These techniques can help you bounce back.

6 mins read
Reader's Digest US
March 2021