The secret ingredient

Striped Toothpaste Postcard
The magic red stripes

One of the earliest advertisements I can recall, and this was much before I took up advertising as a profession, was for Signal toothpaste. The tag line for the brand was, ‘the red stripes contain hexachlorophene,’ which promised to take care of bad breath. Many of us rushed to the nearest provision store (Amazon was not even a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’ eyes) to get hold of a family-size tube of Signal. This was not because we were taken in by the unique chemical properties supposedly contained in those snazzy red stripes, but mainly because we thought those snazzy red stripes were, well um, snazzy. Truth to tell, we had not the foggiest what hexachlorophene was, but it sounded mighty impressive. Chances are all brands of toothpaste contained this chemical, but when one brand makes the claim clamorously and adds some red stripes to it, we will follow that brand to the ends of the earth, like so many mindless and gullible sheep. Are sheep gullible? You can think on that when next you are tucking into your mutton rogan josh.

During my working days at the ad agency, they used to call this the Unique Selling Proposition (USP), a concept that has been consigned to the rubbish bin in subsequent years, I know not why. Rosser Reeves, the ad guru credited with discovering USP, could be turning in his grave. On reflection, I think I know why other ad gurus gave USP the short shrift. There’s not much percentage in claiming bragging rights simply because you were the first to make the USP claim with no genuine exclusivity to back it up. Others will follow, splurge more money and shout even louder, completely drowning out the first mover. It’s not quite the same thing as Edmund Hillary being immortalized as the first Homo sapiens to set foot on Mount Everest with his faithful Tenzing (Sherpa) Norgay hot on his heels. Brands, however, must needs shout from the rooftops, if not from the mountain tops.

To get back to Signal, at the time most toothpaste brands extruded plain white paste from the tubes, and when some new kid on the block startled us with blood red stripes, we were sold. Speaking of which, if our gums were prone to bleeding due to caries or gingivitis or whatever tooth or gum-disorder we teenagers were prone to, thanks to not brushing our teeth after dinner and not saying our prayers before going to bed, the red mush in the paste camouflaged the actual, bloody discharge – an added advantage the advertising campaign failed to latch on to. Other brands promised whiter teeth, stronger gums and killing bad breath (…But no one kisses Katie). Colgate (or was it Forhans?) may have been created by a dentist and we would have died wondering where the yellow went when we brushed our teeth with Pepsodent, but in the end, the red stripes and Signal won the day. Here’s the irony. I once visited a dentist in Calcutta who suffered from an awful case of halitosis and like the advert says, even his best friends wouldn’t tell him. I was tempted to blurt out, ‘Dentist heal thyself,’ but thought better of it as he was holding the pliers. What is more, this Dr. Ghosh (or it could have been Dr. Bose) had this disconcerting habit of tapping the affected tooth and solicitously inquiring, ‘Do you fill pen?’ It took me awhile to figure out he wasn’t asking me about my fountain pen’s ink-filled status, but if I felt any pain! An endearing aspect of Bengali English. Sadly, for the dentist that is, I had to switch my custom to another molar-mangler, after taking the initial precaution of chatting with him at close quarters!

1940 Colgate Toothpaste print ad No One Kisses Katie at the Kissing booth  bad breath halitosis | Print ads, Old ads, Old advertisements
1940 Colgate print ad. Note – no brand name. Generic to category?

On a quick aside, as we are on toothpastes, another brand came up with a very novel idea. Or so they thought. They advertised heavily exhorting their clientele to spread the paste only up to half the toothbrush, claiming it will more than do the job of brushing, cleaning, removing bacteria, reaching every crevice, and all this with plenty of foam. This way the tube will last twice as long as any other brand. It was a clever ploy but as it happened, too clever by half; and it backfired. The advert worked only too well for its own good. Sales of this brand plummeted owing to the reduced usage. In short, the brand managers and their agency were hoist with their own petard and had to abruptly call off the campaign. Whether the agency was shown the door or not, I am in no position to say. For the record, I can assure you, from personal experience, that any brand of  toothpaste will pretty much give you satisfactory results with just half the brush ‘pasted.’

In case you were wondering, this piece is not so much about the power of advertising (It pays to advertise), as it is about how gullible we consumers can be (like those sheep) when cunningly fed with a good deal of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook on products we use daily. It’s a strange phenomenon that marketers and their advertising agencies have cottoned on to. Sometimes it is not the advertising, but what is on the bottle label or packaging that brings home the bacon. Which is where we enter the brave, new world of medicine, or more properly, medicines. There are those amongst us who know precious little about how our body works and at the slightest feeling of discomfort rush off to our family doctor, if such a one still exists, feeling much better when we come away clutching a prescription. I am a life-member of that club. Not a full-blown hypochondriac but apt to keep taking my temperature six times daily if I am feeling even a wee bit out of sorts. In recent years, I came to learn, after a routine blood test, that my thyroid functions were not quite within the normal range.

This is as good a time as any to confide in your shell-like ear that I had not the foggiest idea what the thyroid gland was supposed to do. (I refused to consult Google as that would have been the death of me). Until my doctor looked gravely at my test results, tapped his nose contemplatively with his pencil, removed his reading glasses (always a bad sign) and declared that my thyroid numbers were not all that it should be. It is one thing if my doctor had said my blood-pressure was high (or low). I could grasp that as a broad concept – 120/80 excellent, 140/90 fidgeting time, 150/100 call the ambulance. However, I was swimming in uncharted waters when it came to thyroid. ‘Should I worry about it, Doc? You can tell me.’ The man with the stethoscope replied that I should worry about it, but all is not lost, and a proper course of medication should set it right, whatever it was.

He then proceeded to gently massage my throat, just under the chin, grunted vaguely to himself and wrote out a prescription for a bottle of Thyronorm 25 mcg, two tabs a day for three months and return for a review. He said nothing more and I decided not to probe further. Best to leave well enough alone. Ignorance is bliss. I just kept popping the pills till my next test. Let me just cut to the chase. These tablets, amongst other things, contain something called thyroxine sodium and evidently my body needs them. Which is all I needed to know, rather like Signal’s hexachlorophene-filled red stripes. When I called my doctor and asked him what this thyroxine sodium was, he told me curtly not to pry into matters I knew nothing about. Some sort of secret ingredient, I surmised. ‘Just take the pills and stop reading the label on the bottle,’ he harrumphed as the line went dead.

So much for the healing touch. The point I am trying to make, in my somewhat orotund way is that, were it not for my GP mentioning those magic words, thyroxine sodium, I might have gone home without feeling any sense of reassurance. The moment I became aware that my thyroid medicine was armed with the equivalent of Signal’s hexachlorophene, my mood lifted distinctly. If I had been appearing for an ad commercial for Thyronorm 25, you would have seen me, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, looking smilingly straight into the camera, my teeth sparkling thanks to Signal’s hexachlorophene and mouthing the words, ‘I have no worries about my thyroid because I take Thyronorm 25 every morning. If you are concerned about your thyroid, ask your doctor to prescribe the same. Thyronorm – with thyroxine sodium.’ Ting-tong! Only I cannot do all that because medicine brands are not allowed to advertise, but you get the picture. Bottom line, I am still no wiser about the functions of the thyroid gland, any more than I am about strontium 90, but at least I am able to sleep better, secure in the knowledge that I have the gland under control, thanks to thyroxine sodium. Mind over matter. As that celebrated wag Mark Twain put it in another context, ‘If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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  1. From one hypochondriac to another, a fine piece of writing Suresh. It made my Sunday morning.


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