Everyone loves the internet, right? At least some of the time. When it comes to research, for instance, it’s hard to imagine what life was like without it. There are pitfalls to relying on the internet for research, however, and although they should be fairly obvious, it never hurts to be reminded of them.
My main hobby is trivia: playing online trivia, writing questions, and hosting games. I do almost all of my trivia research online, and over the years I’ve become a much better skeptic than I was when I started in 2008. The other activity I do a lot of research for is citation editing. If I am given a particularly messy set of citations, I might spend quite a while trying to piece together the details missing from the entries. Many of the problems I run into with trivia fact-checking apply with citation editing, as well. But trivia is more fun to talk about, so take a trip with me.
The Rabbit Hole
A tweet by @HaggardHawks caught my attention. “B.O., as an abbreviation of “body odour,” it said, “was coined in an American deodorant advertisement in 1919.” And with that, I embarked down the rabbit hole, trying to find an image—or at least the exact text—of this infamous ad.
The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media says that deodorant maker Odorono “in 1919 became the first company to use the term ‘B.O.’ (meaning, but not saying, ‘body odor’),” but the accompanying images are illegible. The 1919 Odorono ad accompanying a Daily Mail piece is legible but refers to “perspiration odor” but not B.O. A number of other search hits yield the same results: check out Weird Universe, Song Facts, and Rigney Graphics. They repeat the claim that Odorono's 1919 ad referred to B.O. but include either an ad image that doesn't support the claim or no supporting evidence or reference at all.
When I finally found a paper that quoted the text of an ad that does use the abbreviation “B.O.,” it was a Lifebuoy Soap ad from 1926, not an Odorono deodorant ad from 1919.
Meanwhile, articles in sources that are likely to be heavily fact-checked, such as the New York Times and the Smithsonian talk about the 1919 ad being influential but don’t claim that the abbreviation “B.O.” showed up in it. Until I see an actual 1919 ad, from Odorono or otherwise, that uses “B.O.” in it, I’m going to consider this oft-repeated claim to be apocryphal.
Still a Pretty Cool Ad
What all of these sources agree on is that the 1919 ad was in fact revolutionary, but it wasn’t because the term “B.O.” was literally used in it. It was because an ad was calling attention to the possibility that women’s armpits might produce smell at all. Odorono ads referred to “perspiration odor” and “armhole odor” (the latter referring to the armholes of one’s dress). They flatly stated that a woman’s social life and love life will suffer due to these smells. But the odor was attributed to her apparel, while her body was carefully referred to as “dainty” and “sweet.” Given the thin line of delicacy applied in these ads, which were still so offensive as to lead hundreds of readers to cancel their subscriptions to the magazines they appeared in, it is hard to believe that an informal abbreviation like “B.O.” could have been used.
The 1919 Odorono ad paved the way for body odor, including women’s, to be talked about frankly (and, not coincidentally, in a way that sent them scurrying for products that would cover it up). By 1926, the term B.O. had been coined and was appearing in Lifebuoy ads (though I’m not going to claim these ads were their first appearance—that’s not what my research was trying to pin down). What I’d love to tell the writers who keep perpetuating this unsupported claim, though, is that the ad has a pretty great history without it. Why not just appreciate that history without this extra piece of maybe-info-maybe-not?
Why Not, Indeed?
The 1919/Odorono/B.O. topic is an example of something I think of as a “click-fact.” When you hear a fantastic trivia question or fact, your brain goes “click,” as if it’s saying, “Wow! That’s so cool!” These click-facts aren’t always actual facts, but we really, really want them to be. Because they’re just so cool! Mike Nesmith’s mom invented liquid paper! “Click!” Benjamin Harrison wouldn’t touch the lightswitches at the White House for fear of electrocution! “Click!” The Flintstones were the first TV couple to appear in bed together! “Click!”
Only two of those three click-facts are true, by the way. In a separate Rabbit Hole venture I took several years ago, I eventually concluded my journey by writing this trivia question, which was of course intended for the purest of trivia nerds:
Commonly circulated trivia answers to what question are: Herman and Lily Munster, Fred and Wilma Flintstone, and Ozzie and Harriet Nelson?
We circulate click-facts because they sound like they should be true and not because they actually are (though some, like the clicks about Nesmith and Harrison above, are genuine). They are so commonly repeated across the internet that they become resistant to questioning. Mary Kay and Johnny isn’t a typical answer to that question because it’s not a sitcom anyone remembers, unlike the Flintstones, the Munsters, and Ozzie and Harriet, all of which you can catch on Hulu, on Netflix, or in syndication. There’s no “click” attached to it.
Join a New Click
When I come across a click-fact that I can’t find true confirmation for, I write my trivia question on it in a way that turns the click-fact on its head. Here’s the Odorono question as I ultimately wrote it (there will be a little repetition of what I wrote above):
What band included on a 1967 album a song about the deodorant that purportedly coined the abbreviation “B.O.” in 1919?
It’s just as much fun to do some thorough research and determine that commonly believed “facts” are untrue or unsupported as it is to accept the clicks at first snap. When you present the research, it’s all a matter of accurate framing and acknowledging what you genuinely do or don’t know. In scholarly research, the temptation to report “facts” just because they’re cool is far less than it is in trivia, but we can all still use the reminder sometimes.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.