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
By 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?”

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