The power of habit and the story of Pepsodent


I recently came across a mind-blowing story about how Pepsodent was launched in the market and how brushing teeth became a worldwide habit. I came across the story in a book titled The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

To those of you who have read the book, this post will serve as a nice little reminder and those of you who haven’t or don’t have the time to, I suggest you go through this eye-opening story that encapsulates the very essence of how habits work and further solidify your understanding.

The story of Pepsodent

Before you continue, make sure you’ve read my articles about habits especially the one about the science behind how habits work. In that article, I described how habits are governed by Triggers, Routines, and Rewards and the story of Pepsodent illustrates the same principles in a lucid manner.

the power of habit

Claude Hopkins was a prominent advertiser who lived in America around the time of World War 1. He had a unique ability to advertise products in such a way that they became instant hits in the marketplace. He had turned many previously unknown products into household names. His secret was habit.

He knew how to align the products with the daily habits of people by making sure that the use of the product is triggered by some activity that people do daily.

For instance, he made Quaker Oats famous by telling people that ‘eating it in the morning as a breakfast cereal will provide you with energy for the whole day’. So he connected the product (oats) with an activity that people do every day (breakfast) and promised a reward (energy for the whole day).

Claude Hopkins, the genius, now faced a predicament. He was approached by an old friend who said that he had experimented with some chemicals and had made the ultimate dental cleaning concoction that he called Pepsodent.

Though his friend was convinced that the product was amazing and would be a hit, Hopkins knew that it was a huge risk.

He essentially had to develop a whole new habit of brushing teeth among the consumers. There was already an army of door-to-door salesmen hawking tooth powders and elixirs, most of them going broke. However, after his friend’s persistent insistence, Hopkins finally designed a national level ad campaign.

To sell Pepsodent, Hopkins needed a trigger- something that people could relate with or something that they did every day. Then he had to connect that product to that trigger so that the use of the product (routine) led to a reward.

While going through dental books, he came across a piece of info about mucin plaques on teeth which he later called “the film”.

He had an interesting idea- he decided to advertise the Pepsodent toothpaste as a creator of beauty, something that could help people get rid of that cloudy film. The film is actually a naturally occurring membrane that builds up on teeth regardless of what you eat or how often you brush.

It can be removed by eating an apple, running fingers on the teeth or vigorously swirling the liquid around the mouth. But people didn’t know that because they had paid little attention to it. Hopkins plastered the walls of cities with many ads including this one:

Just run your tongue across your teeth. You’ll feel a film- that’s what makes your teeth look ‘off-color’ and invites decay. Pepsodent removes the film.

Hopkins used a trigger that was easy to notice (chances are high you also ran your tongue across your teeth after reading the previous line), created a routine that could help people satisfy a non-existent need and fitted his product into the routine.

Brushing teeth was important, of course, for maintaining dental hygiene. But Hopkins couldn’t convince people by just saying, “Brush every day”. No one cares. He had to create a new need, even if it was just a figment of his imagination!

In the coming years, the sale of Pepsodent skyrocketed, brushing teeth using Pepsodent became almost a worldwide habit and Hopkins made millions in profit. 

Do you know why mint and other refreshing substances are added to toothpastes?

No, they’ve got nothing to do with dental cleaning. They are added so that you feel that tingling sensation on your gums and tongue after brushing. That cool tingling sensation is a reward that convinces your mind that using the toothpaste has worked.

People who make toothpastes deliberately add such chemicals so that you get some sort of a signal that the product is working and feel ‘rewarded’ after a brushing session.