One night in 1920 in the New Jersey town of New Brunswick, Earle Dickson was tending to his wife Josephine who’d cut herself while preparing dinner. Dickson worked as a cotton buyer for Johnson & Johnson, and his job gave him an idea. Taking a strip of adhesive tape, he cut out a square of cotton and placed a layer of crinoline on top. So Dickson helped his wife—and made history, too. J&J has sold over 100 billion Band-Aids since. The product itself has changed comparatively little, but as the ads on these pages make clear, a small revolution has occurred in the way they’re marketed—and to whom.
Band-Aids aren’t really a children’s brand, but kids’ perennial talent for bruising themselves is a major reason adults buy them. J&J recognized as much when it produced the 1963 advertisement at right. Though the ad’s downward-gazing perspective makes obvious that J&J was talking to adults, the branding focus is all about Junior.
According to Chris McKee, president and chief creative officer of kids’ marketing consultancy The Geppetto Group, the ad’s poignancy in portraying the parent-child relationship was quite effective. “It shows a very intimate moment: Your kid’s cut himself, and he needs you right then and there,” McKee says. “This was very much a parental sentiment for 1963. We were a practical society back then—we hid under our desks from nuclear fallout.”
But it would take a different kind of explosive force (well, at least in the marketing sense) to get us to the ad on the opposite page. The change actually came in two parts. First, McKee says, caregiving themes like the kind in this ‘63 ad have evolved into more nuanced messages than mom covering a boo-boo with a Band-Aid.
“After decades of helmet laws, car seats and antibacterial soap, we’ve taken care of the quantitative nurturing,” McKee says. The second—and far more influential—force was the rise of character licensing. While sticking popular TV and movie personalities on merchandise is hardly a new trick (Mickey Mouse note pads hit the market as early as 1929), in recent years it’s staged a veritable takeover of kids’ marketing. According to the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association, licensed characters sold $38 billion worth of retail goods in 2010.
“Youth culture,” McKee says, “has become a character-populated culture.” And this is why the Band-Aid ad from late 2011, opposite, shows neither parent nor child, but Lightning McQueen and his four-wheeled friends instead.
Disney and J&J inked a deal for Band-Aids to carry the Cars characters about two years ago. Oddly enough, it seems like Disney needed the branding boost more. While Cars 2 rang up a modest (for Pixar) U.S. box office of about $191 million, merchandise featuring the Cars characters hit the $10 billion mark by last summer. Not that Band-Aids hasn’t benefitted too. The “emotional value” of the characters, McKee says, “absolutely works in selling Band-Aids.”
It’s also allowed J&J to achieve something unusual for a health and beauty brand. Thanks to Lightning McQueen on the box, Band-Aids are now something kids might even ask mom to buy for them—whether they have a boo-boo or not.