Lifebuoy Soap was invented and promoted by the Lever Brothers in England in 1895. It was first propelled into the advertising world with claims that using it would protect you from germs and save you from sickness (hence the name Lifebuoy).
It contained carbolic acid (which gave it a strong medicinal smell) and early ads stated that using it as a disinfectant was the best protection against diseases such as typhoid, cholera and diphtheria. Up until the 1930s the carbolic, and therefore antiseptic nature of the soap, was a consistent focus in advertising. When it eventually disappeared from ads it was instead replaced with the ambiguous term ‘health ingredient’.
From the 1930s the company began marketing the soap as an effective tool to protect you from the perils of ‘body odour’. Rather than print both words over and over again, they decided to use the initialism ‘BO’. It is believed that Lever Brothers was the first company to do so.
While the earlier ads and their inflated claims of protection from certain illnesses are amusing, I am most fascinated by the later ads and the way in which the company targeted people and their insecurities. No one was immune from BO and thus no one was immune from Lifebuoy Soap advertising. Men and women alike were the subject of various ads which depicted the social stigma surrounding bad body odour. The brand’s main message was simple: if something wasn’t going right in your life, it was probably because of BO.
The BO campaign appears to have started in Australian newspapers in October 1930 and featured photos with the text “If private thoughts were spoken…” It focused on a person’s anxieties as to whether other people were thinking badly of them.
Photos gave way to cartoons and comics and they regularly highlighted worries felt within intimate relationships and especially the fear of losing someone. The problem was always BO and the answer was always Lifebuoy.
While romantic relationships were a common theme, some ads focused on professional relationships. With the effects of the Great Depression likely still impacting many people, Lifebuoy decided to use the subject of continuous job loss. Of course, according to them, the reason was because of BO and the best way to keep your job was to use their soap.
The 1940s saw no change in the way the product was advertised. Many ads concentrated on popularity; if you wanted to be likeable and the life of the party then you should be using Lifebuoy.
Marriage was another common theme. The ad below was directed at women and, specifically, those who were single. The reason a woman wasn’t married? BO. The surefire way to find a husband? Lifebuoy.
Marriage itself did not render you immune from Lifebuoy advertising. They instead fixed on people’s insecurities as to why their spouse had changed and acted differently after they were married. The message was clear: don’t grow careless with BO.
For decades the company followed the same story line in their advertising; a person was not aware they had BO, it was affecting their life in some way and then a helpful friend, mother, workmate or stranger enlightened them as to their problem and recommended Lifebuoy Soap.
During the 1950s the ads continued in much the same way however their intensity and how they played on people’s emotions softened significantly. After that point, the small selection of ads on Trove indicates that the use of ‘BO’ was abandoned. Despite its disappearance from advertising, the longevity and saturation of the campaign meant that the term became ingrained in our language. Managing to outlast the soap for which it was first created, ‘BO’ has remained and is still used today.
Share your story…
Did you or your family use Lifebuoy Soap? What do you recall about the product? Please leave a comment below. I’d love to read your story.
- Lifebuoy (soap) on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lifebuoy_(soap)
- 1895 ‘Advertising’, The Australian Star (Sydney, NSW : 1887 – 1909), 10 April, p. 3. , viewed 01 Feb 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article227120024
- 1916 ‘Advertising’, The Bendigo Independent (Vic. : 1891 – 1918), 23 December, p. 10. , viewed 01 Feb 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article219808498
- 1930 ‘Advertising’, The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), 9 October, p. 21. (FINAL EXTRA), viewed 02 Feb 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article224235222
- 1933, The Albany Advertiser (WA : 1897 – 1954), 13 February, p. 3. , viewed 02 Feb 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page6411270
- 1936 ‘Advertising’, Lithgow Mercury (NSW : 1898 – 1954), 13 February, p. 7. (TOWN EDITION), viewed 02 Feb 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article219717628
- 1940 ‘Advertising’, Advocate (Burnie, Tas. : 1890 – 1954), 17 April, p. 5. , viewed 02 Feb 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article68296850
- 1941 ‘Display Advertising’, The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), 11 June, p. 2. , viewed 02 Feb 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2571973
- 1944 ‘Advertising’, Truth (Sydney, NSW : 1894 – 1954), 6 February, p. 16. , viewed 02 Feb 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article168759644
- 1946 ‘Advertising’, The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), 9 March, p. 47. , viewed 30 Jan 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article47118654