Out of the Ashtray and Into the Island Paradise: The Journey of the Air Freshener

How the winds have changed for Air Wick

In 2012, Air Wick announced a partnership with the National Park Foundation to produce a collection of home scents inspired by places like Yellowstone and Glacier Bay. The company praised these sylvan preserves for furnishing Americans “with the purest scents of nature.” For the record, the sprayable versions of these scents are made with trideceth-9, dipropylene glycol and other stuff that doesn’t exactly remind one of the great outdoors.

But never mind that. The fact that consumers can look at this 2014 ad for silver lotus-scented oils and imagine their homes redolent of Channel Island breezes demonstrates just how thoroughly air fresheners have wafted their way into our lives. The ad doesn’t explain how an air freshener works or its benefits—because it doesn’t have to. “Everybody knows what this product is,” observed Hayes Roth, former CMO of Landor and now principal of his own brand consulting firm. “And everybody assumes that it’s going to work.”

Things weren’t always so simple, as a look back at this 1947 Air Wick ad shows all too clearly. Air fresheners had been on the market a mere four years when this nauseating little ad appeared in the pages of Esquire. The product’s sheer newness warranted a marketing approach that was a total inversion of what we see today. While 2014’s tropical-island photo suggests how nice people’s homes might smell, this erupting ashtray of 1947 played off the embarrassment of how bad many people’s homes actually did smell.

As Roth pointed out, this “old, heavy style of selling” was common for products like deodorants and mouthwashes, and standard marketing practice at a time when personal and domestic hygiene standards weren’t the fussy priorities they are now. “In the 1950s, nobody was worried about whether you smelled bad,” he said, “and the smoke-filled room was an accepted environment.”

In fact, we can thank products like Listerine and Air Wick for making us aware—if a bit brutally—that our middle-class lives could be more refined if we so chose. A succession of newer air fresheners nudged that trend forward, if clumsily. Air Wick’s 1947 claim that chlorophyll “kills all unpleasant odors” was an assertion largely discredited by the mid-1950s, and for decades air fresheners merely attempted to mask odors with sickly sweet aromas like roses. It wasn’t until Procter & Gamble’s 1998 patenting of cyclodextrin (the active ingredient in Febreze) that the industry moved completely into the realm of effective odor killing.

Today, consumers’ faith in that chemical miracle makes this 2014 ad possible and credible—tropical island and all. 

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