Just like we see today, even 100 years ago brands claimed their products prevented or cured the deadly influenza virus. There was a similar barrage of hygiene and immunity products that promised protection from the flu.
Over the last 12 months I've taken to something called 'narrative prophylaxis' - protecting oneself with stories. I've been reading different kinds of books - old, new, fiction, non-fiction. I toggle between formats - paperback, kindle, audio books.
One of the books I finished reading recently (actually, listening to on Amazon's Audible) is a shocker titled 'The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Plague in History' by John M. Barry. Written in 2004, it's a brilliant, detailed account of the 1918 flu pandemic, that overlapped with the 1st world war.
Just like we see today, even 100 years ago brands claimed that their products prevented or cured the deadly virus. There was a similar barrage of hygiene and immunity products that claimed to protect users from the disease. All italicised bits below are plucked from the book. I've taken the images from different websites.
One para goes, "Meanwhile, Vicks VapoRub advertisements in hundreds of papers danced down the delicate line of reassurance while promising relief, calling the epidemic 'Simply the Old-Fashioned Grip Masquerading Under a New Name'."
Another page in the book reads: "Advertisements filled the newspapers, sometimes set in the same small type as—and difficult to distinguish from—news articles, and sometimes set in large fonts blaring across a page. The one thing they shared: they all declared with confidence there was a way to stop influenza, there was a way to survive. Some claims were as simple as a shoe store’s advertising, “One way to keep the flu away is to keep your feet dry.”
The author goes on, "Some were as complex as “Making a Kolynos Gas Mask To Fight Spanish Influenza When Exposed to Infection.”
They also all played to fear. “How To Prevent Infection From Spanish Influenza…. The Surgeon General of the U.S. Army urges you to keep your mouth clean…. [use] a few drops of liquid SOZODONT.”
Hygiene brands made noise as well. The author writes about a Lysol ad: “Help your Health Board Conquer Spanish influenza By Disinfecting your Home…Lysol Disinfectant.”
And an immunity led brand: “For GRIP…You are Safe When You Take Father John’s Medicine.” “Influ-BALM Prevents Spanish Flu.”
Another para goes: “Special Notice to the Public. Telephone inquiries from Minneapolis physicians and the laity and letters from many parts of America are coming into our office regarding the use of Benetol,…a powerful bulwark for the prevention and treatment of Spanish influenza….”
Followed by: “Spanish influenza—what it is and how it should be treated:…Always Call a Doctor/ No Occasion For Panic…. There is no occasion for panic—influenza itself has a very low percentage of fatalities…. Use Vicks VapoRub.”
Some ads were downright ridiculous. We've seen a bunch of those in 2020-21.
100 years have passed, yet so little has changed. Pathogens continue to ravage humanity, while brands continue to promise protection.
I highly recommend the 500-something pager 'The Great Influenza' by John M. Barry.
This piece was first published on LinkedIn, by Ashwini Gangal, executive editor, afaqs!.
Image of book cover taken from https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/The-Great-Influenza