By David Futrelle
With safe, legal abortion and even some forms of contraception under siege, it’s worth revisiting one of the most shamefully misogynistic decades-long ad campaigns in advertising history, when Lysol — you know, the cleaning product — was marketed as a great thing to douche with.
If the idea of squirting Lysol into vaginas isn’t horrifying enough in itself, it gets worse. These ad campaigns weren’t just trying to convince women that killing the good bacteria in their vaginas would make them smell better (it doesn’t); they were also — perhaps even primarily — trying to hint that Lysol was an effective form of post-sex birth control. (It’s not.) Hence the references to using it “every time” in some Lysol ads — see below.
As sociologist Lisa Wade notes:
These ads aren’t frightening women into thinking their genitals smell badly. According to historian Andrea Tone, “feminine hygiene” was a euphemism. Birth control was illegal in the U.S. until 1965 (for married couples) and 1972 (for single people). These Lysol ads are actually for contraception. The campaign made Lysol the best-selling method of contraception during the Great Depression.
Of course, we’re not wrong to be horrified today. Lysol was incredibly corrosive to the vagina; in fact, it’s recipe was significantly more dangerous than the one used today. Hundreds of people died from exposure to Lysol, including women who were using it to kill sperm. It was also, to add insult to injury, wholly ineffective as a contraceptive.
But this is what desperate women have resorted to when they didn’t have reproductive rights.
Here are some of these old, horrifying ads for Lysol. I’ve done my best to clean up the images but they may be hard to read unless you enlarge them; click on the pics for a direct link to the images themselves.
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