It is a testimony to Unilever that it has weathered every economic and sociological era of American life for well over a hundred years.
In the decade from 1900 to 1910, all the advertising for what are now Unilever brands had a very practical, very medicinal focus, whether it showed a tireless mother disinfecting clothes with Lifebuoy soap or sold an aftershave extract for razor burns.
One of the first ads sold Pond's Extract as a reliever of sore lungs, colds and coughs due to germs caught while working in livery stables, so it is plain to see why it needed a larger demographic to succeed; so then Pond's became the extract for sprains, burns and even "face aches" - whatever they were. Its medicinal value soon saw it positioned as the "ladies friend" and as a panacea for rheumatism and even diphtheria.
From 1902 JWT was advertising Lifebuoy soap and pictured - of course - a hard-working, stay-at-home housewife, keeping the family clean from infection and disease. And all this from a bar of soap for five cents. Not bad.
Looking at these ads, you get the sense that this generation just didn't have the leisure time to worry about things such as bad breath, smelling clean for a blind date or having a whiter smile. They were into surviving - but, had they known World War I was just around the corner, they might've enjoyed themselves while they had the chance.
These women obviously didn't take much time out in their lives to think about themselves or how they looked, much less how they could get rid of their crow's feet. I'm sure none of these ladies could ever have predicted that Pond's, first used to fight off livery stable germs, would ever be positioned as an "institute" to beautify and rejuvenate women.
It's also apparent from the claims of being an "unrivalled remedy" for just about every illness known to man that legal clearance was not a big stumbling block when creating advertising. You almost get the feeling that the advertising in the early 1900s mimicked the sales patter of the travelling snake-oil salesmen, who offered a cure-all to all and then quickly left town.
What's also apparent is that the skepticism that we have of today's advertising was nowhere in sight; it was a very innocent time. Lord knows what they'll be writing about our current advertising a hundred years from now.
- In 1978 Linda Kaplan Thaler was a junior copywriter at J. Walter Thompson New York when she worked on Unilever's Body by the Numbers shampoo. Despite her catchy jingle, the brand didn't last, but her relationship with Unilever continued for more than 15 years. She is now the CEO and chief creative officer of the Kaplan Thaler Group.