In the early 1900s the health of Americans’ teeth was in steep decline. As the nation had become wealthier, people had started buying larger amounts of sugary, processed foods. When the American government started drafting men for World War 1, so many recruits had rotting teeth that officials declared poor dental hygiene a national security risk.
How habits fixed the American hygiene problem
At the time of the dental hygiene national security risk, Claude C. Hopkins a prominent American executive, was at the top of a booming industry: advertising. Hopkins had turned dozens of previously unknown products – Schlitz beer, Palmolive soap, Goodyear tires, and Quaker oats – into household names. Hopkins was approached by an old friend with a new business idea. The friend had discovered a toothpaste that he was convinced would be a hit, a minty, frothy concoction called “Pepsodent“. Hopkins, despite expressing a mild interest in the beginning, eventually agreed to join the Pepsodent team. He was tasked with designing a national promotional campaign.
The problem in America was that hardly anyone bought toothpaste because, despite the nation’s dental problems, hardly anyone brushed their teeth. However, within 5 years of Hopkins joining the Pepsodent team, he turned it into one of the best known products on earth. In the process, he helped create a toothbrushing habit that moved across America with startling speed. By 1930, Pepsodent was sold in China, South Africa, Brazil, Germany and almost everywhere else Hopkins could buy ads.
So what, exactly, did Hopkins do?
Hopkins’ success in advertising was based on an approach he used to create new habits amongst consumers. His signature tactic was to find simple triggers to convince consumers to use his products every day. To sell Pepsodent, he needed a trigger that would justify the toothpaste’s daily use. After reading a number of dental textbooks, Hopkins finally came up with an appealing idea. He decided to advertise Pepsodent toothpaste as a creator of beauty. While reading one of the dental textbooks, Hopkins found a reference to “mucin plaques”, that cloudy film that forms on teeth. Pepsodent toothpaste would be used to deal with that cloudy film. Here, he decided, was a cue that could trigger a habit. Soon cities were plastered with Pepsodent ads. The ads focused on getting the message across that Pepsodent removes the film, leaving you with clean teeth, a prettier smile and looking beautiful.
The brilliance of these appeals was that they relied upon a cue (tooth film), that was universally impossible to ignore. Telling someone to run their tongue across their teeth, it turned out, was likely to cause them to run their tongue across their teeth. And when they did, they were likely to feel a film. Hopkins had found a cue that was simple, had existed for ages, and was so easy to trigger that an advertisement could cause people to comply automatically. Moreover, the reward, as Hopkins envisioned it, was even more enticing. Who, after all, doesn’t want to be more beautiful? Who doesn’t want a prettier smile? Particularly when all it takes is a quick brush with Pepsodent?
Before Pepsodent appeared, only 7 percent of Americans had a tube of toothpaste in their medicine chests. A decade after Hopkins’ ad campaign went nationwide, that number had jumped to 65 percent. The key, Hopkins said, was that he had “learned the right human psychology.” That psychology was grounded in two basic rules:
- Find a simple and obvious cue.
- Clearly define the rewards.
If you get those elements right, you are on the path to create a habit. With Pepsodent, Hopkins had identified a cue (tooth film) and a reward (beautiful teeth), that had persuaded millions to start a daily ritual. These same principles have been used to create thousands of other habits, often without people realising how closely they are getting to the same formula. Studies of people who have successfully started new exercise routines, dieting plans, and daily meditation all show they are more likely to stick to the habit if they choose a specific cue and a clear/specific reward once they have completed the routine.
The secret to Hopkins’ success was that he found a certain kind of cue and reward that fueled a particular habit. He created a craving and that craving it turns out, is what makes cues and rewards work. That craving is what powers the habit loop. What is the craving for that habit you want to create?
Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Doubleday Canada, 2012).