Perspective: The Big Kiss-Off

Scope's prudish days are over

Conventional wisdom holds that once a brand finds a message that resonates, it sticks with it. This is why Raid’s been telling us it “kills bugs dead” since 1966 and why Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes has been “GR-R-REAT!” since the ‘50s. For the better part of a generation, Scope mouthwash traveled a familiar road, too. (We’ll get to that in a moment.) But as these ads show, conventional wisdom doesn’t hold forever. Sometimes the smartest thing a brand can do is take its familiar marketing message and toss it out—or, in Scope’s case, kiss it goodbye.

Before the year 1966, mouthwash meant Listerine, Lambert Pharmaceutical’s wonder antiseptic whose paranoia-inducing advertising about halitosis prompted millions of Americans to gargle with it every day. Unchanged since its introduction in 1879, Listerine was an alcohol-based formulation of eucalyptol, menthol, methyl salicylate and thymol. It killed germs like magic. It also made your mouth taste like a chemistry lab. Enter Scope.

Marketers at Procter & Gamble knew that their formulation killed germs just like Listerine did. But Scope’s secret ingredient wasn’t its cetylpyridinium chloride or domiphen bromide. It was a marketing term—“mediciney”—that hit Listerine where it hurt. In a long and memorable run of ads, Scope asked, why would you want your breath to smell like medicine when it could be “minty fresh” with Scope? The 1977 ad below is textbook. Nothing conveyed the immediacy of breath like those pink lips, and nothing proved Scope’s claim like scratch-and-sniff pads.

Trouble is, for as durable and effective as Scope’s messaging was—and did take plenty of market share away from Listerine—its argument could never fully shed a certain stomach-turning quality. “The ad is call to action, but it misses the mark,” said Peter Madden, president and CEO of branding agency AgileCat. “It’s very stationary, medicinal. Maybe if they’d used an attractive model, it would have been better, but those boxed-off lips skeeve me out.”

Perhaps that’s why P&G (and Scope agency Publicis) decided to dump it—and dump all of it, judging from the image opposite, which approaches the brand from a completely different angle. Gone are the clinical trappings of germs, halitosis and medicine breath, the marketing tools that Scope relied on for years. Replacing it all is a lusty kiss on a dance floor—and the underlying message that Scope is no longer an antiseptic, but a social potion that inspires interaction, daring and confidence. “It’s cool and energetic, and the art direction is great,” said Madden, who adds that Scope has taken a page from the Axe playbook by shifting the focus from the performance of the product to the performance of the user: “It’s coming across with all millennial products now: Get out tonight, and who knows? If you’re on your game, you might get lucky.”

Heck, even if you don’t, at least your breath won’t be mediciney.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.