The origins of this strange consumer phenomenon can be traced back to Leo Gerstenzang, an immigrant from Poland.
In 1923, Gerstenzang thought he could improve on the way his wife Ziota wrapped a piece of cotton around a toothpick to clean their newborn daughter Betty’s eyes, ears, belly button and other sensitive areas while bathing.
Gerstenzang soon changed the brand name to “Q-Tips Baby Gays”. By the mid-1930s, “Baby Gays” had been deleted from the name.
But, according to Betty’s obituary, “Q-tips” was a play on Cutie-Tips because she was so cute when she was a kid.
Adult Ear Care
Q Tips never told us to stick swabs in the ear canal to remove earwax. But since its inception in the 1920s, it has made ear care a major focus of its marketing strategy. This has trained generations of Americans to associate it with cleaning up there.
Douglas Backus, a neurologist who specializes in treating ear and skull conditions, said Q tips are almost addictive to use to remove wax and become a vicious cycle when we do. Removing earwax results in dry skin, and we then want to rub it – of course – with a cotton tip.
Sticking Q-tips in your ears can also damage the ear canal. Most people don’t actually need to remove earwax either, as the ears are self-cleaning. Inserting a swab can trap earwax more deeply, he said, “and you’re actually working against yourself by using it.”
It wasn’t until the 1970s, under former owner Chesebrough-Pond’s, that Q Tips added a warning about not sticking the thing in your ear. It is not clear the reason for this change.
But by the time the Q-tips added the warning label, it was too late. It became impossible to break consumer habits, and Q-Tips controlled about 75% of the cotton swabs market.
“It’s been accepted that this is the way people use it,” said Aaron Calloway, Q-Tips brand manager at Unilever in 2007 and 2008.
so what should You are using Q-Tips for? The company has several suggestions. For decades, I have tried to emphasize the versatility of cotton swabs.
During the 1940s, Q tips were positioned as an essential cosmetic and beauty tool for women.
“Mom, did you know you can use Q-Tips for so many things?…You can use them yourself when using cream or makeup, Mommy!” Reading a 1941 print ad.
Another print ad, a decade later, described Q Tips as a “beauty assistant” for women.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Q-Tips began telling consumers that they were more than just kids or women – they were useful for any project around the house or in their lives.
“To lubricate saws and augers… guns and fishing reels… fix teacup and clean jewelry… antique furniture,” the 1971 ad read.
Today, Q-Tips ads are no ears. A spokesperson for the brand says 80% of consumers use Q Tips for purposes other than personal care.
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