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Buyer Beware: The case of Lysol disinfectant

By Kristin Hall


As North Americans, should we have confidence that the products we purchase are safe? Should we trust that manufacturers and advertisers keep consumer welfare in mind during the marketing process — from product conception to point of purchase? Of course we should. One would hope that corporations would have a sense of moral responsibility to act in the best interest of their customers. If companies don’t recognize their moral obligations, legal entities exist to protect us…right?

Unfortunately this isn’t always the case, and historically speaking, corporate North America has a long history of knowingly producing dangerous products, making misleading, fraudulent claims, and harming the consumer. In some cases, these very products are still on store shelves. Take Lysol, for example. Today, millions trust it to clean their sinks and countertops without incident. But in the 1920s and 1930s — and until the 1960s — women across Canada and the United States suffered burns and scarring because they chose to trust the makers of Lysol. Lehn & Fink, interwar manufacturer of Lysol, said that their product could be used as a contraceptive vaginal douche. In other words, Lysol was advertised as a form of birth control (which was illegal in North America in the 1920s and 1930s), consumers believed them, some were seriously injured, and many became pregnant.

In researching how Lysol could possibly have got away with such irresponsible behavior for so long, two issues came to light. First, the company devised an advertising campaign that communicated to consumers that their product could be used to avoid unwanted pregnancies without actually saying it was a birth control product. The term “feminine hygiene” was a euphemism for birth control that illegal birth control manufacturers like Lysol coined in the 1920s. Unfortunately, it caught on, which is unsurprising since the ads using the phrase also included rhetoric surrounding aging caused by worry over using an ineffective feminine hygiene product (read worry over unwanted pregnancy) and invoked imagery of marital strife because women didn’t use feminine hygiene (meaning women failed to obtain birth control and were choosing abstinence, causing marital problems).

The second major issue was that legal authorities were powerless because of the euphemism the company used. Without actually saying it was intended for use as birth control, Lysol could, and did, deny that they were advertising the product as birth control, despite the fact that everyone knew they were lying. What’s more, neither Canada nor the US had any consumer protection laws to prevent this kind of dangerous false advertising. They had laws pertaining to unfair competition between firms and misbranding, but nothing that protected the consumer.

While Lysol is only advertised as a household cleaning product these days, there are companies that still try to take advantage of consumers and evade the legal ramifications. In 2012, for instance, the American Federal Trade Commission prosecuted huge corporations such as athletic wear and shoe producer Reebok for claiming one of their shoes would strengthen lower body muscles. Likewise, Nivea was prosecuted for falsely claiming one of their creams could reduce users’ body size.

Of course, these examples are not as extreme as Lysol’s interwar advertising and authorities today, armed with useful laws, stepped in to protect consumers. The trouble is, these products were advertised and made their way into the hands of consumers as Lysol and its birth control method once did. In Canada and the US, laws are in place to protect us, but the responsive nature of the legal system means that companies can go about telling us and selling us what they want until they get caught. But at least they can get caught.

So, should we have faith in the consumer market that has really come to define North American society? Well, we certainly shouldn’t be afraid of it, but both historical and contemporary examples suggest we should be vigilant. Perhaps the safest way to approach the market is with some consumer confidence, accompanied by a healthy dose of skepticism.

Kristin Hall is a graduate student in the history department at the University of Waterloo. She is the author of “Selling Sexual Certainty? Advertising Lysol as a Contraceptive in the United States and Canada, 1919-1939″ in the most recent issue of in Enterprise & Society, which is available to read for free for a limited time.

Enterprise & Society offers a forum for research on the historical relations between businesses and their larger political, cultural, institutional, social, and economic contexts. The journal aims to be truly international in scope. Studies focused on individual firms and industries and grounded in a broad historical framework are welcome, as are innovative applications of economic or management theories to business and its context.

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Image credit: Woman checking food labelling in supermarket. monkeybusinessimages via iStockphoto.

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