Killer Advertising

Killer Advertising – How Canadians Were Sold the 1918/1919 Influenza Pandemic

Kate Barker

As news reports come in of scammers trying to leverage a global pandemic into profit at the expense of Canadians, it is an interesting time to examine the equivalent during the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic. Patent medicine companies and others in Canada plugged their products as influenza cure-alls in advertisements that were ubiquitous in Canadian newspapers and periodicals. Some ads were sophisticated pitches masquerading as news, while others were crudely fashioned. Advertisers relied on tropes of modernity, motherhood, and fear to entice women to spend money to protect their families from influenza. During the pandemic, the presence of these ads, in concert with the draconian strictures on press freedom imposed by the War Measures Act (WMA) and press obeisance to that act, meant that some of the most prominent published messages Canadians received about influenza were entirely fictitious.

Before analyzing the content of advertisements, it is first necessary to briefly consider the role censorship played in Canada in 1918. The Canadian press was robust with six daily newspapers in Toronto alone and 120 dailies across the country by 1900.[1] The WMA came into effect a few weeks after the British declaration of war on Germany and was made retroactive to the beginning of hostilities. Under the strictures of the act, 253 publications were ultimately banned – many of them labour-oriented and foreign-language titles.[2] The wording of the act was so vague as to allow almost anything to be interpreted as seditious, which could result in editors facing jail time and stiff fines. There were, however, very few instances of editorial resistance to the act. The WMA also upended the very foundation of the English common law by placing the onus of proof upon the accused.

This censorship significantly muted coverage of influenza in Canada as well. A detailed analysis of how the pandemic was reported in Canadian newspapers is the subject of another chapter in my dissertation, but research to date indicates that large dailies vacillated between underplaying the story and editorializing a keep-calm approach. Smaller newspapers, by contrast, published stories with considerably more colour and realism. The Hamilton Spectator, for example, reported a grisly little piece about a real estate agent who, while showing a house, enthusiastically threw open the bedroom door for his client, only to reveal the decomposing corpse of the homeowner lying in bed.[3]

Patent medicine advertising had dominated Canadian newspapers since the nineteenth century. By 1907, the Journal of the American Medical Association ranked Canada as second only to the United States as patent medicine manufacturers.[4] The king of Canadian patent medicine was Brockville, Ontario-based George Taylor Fulford. In 1890, at the start of the Russian influenza pandemic, he began selling Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People, a cure-all concoction composed mainly of iron.[5] During the 1918 pandemic, Fulford Company ads were cleverly designed to look like news copy. On November 28, 1918, The Simcoe Reformer ran a story under the headline “Influenza has later dangers.” The sub-head enticed further reading with “Particular care needed when the patient is convalescent, says expert.” The advice of the quoted expert, one Dr. Louis L. Harris, director of the bureau of preventable diseases of the New York Health Department, involved a diet of eggs, milk, and vegetables and the avoidance of fried foods. The last paragraph recommends:

As a tonic to build up the blood and stimulate the shattered nerves, Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills are unsurpassed. These pills actually make new, rich, red blood, which reaches every organ and every nerve in the body, improves the appetite, strengthens digestion, and drives away the feeling of depression always following an attack of la grippe or influenza. [6]

The article was not an article at all, but a sophisticated advertisement – not unlike a 21st-century advertorial.

Not all advertisements mimicked news stories. The simplest ploy used by some companies to leverage the pandemic into an uptick in sales involved inserting the word “influenza” into existing advertising copy. Yarmouth, Nova Scotia-based Minard’s advertisements suddenly appeared in 1918 with the large font tagline “For Spanish Influenza,” followed by its usual bold, if succinct message: “The liniment that cures all ailments – Minard’s, the old reliable. Try it.” [7] This was the tactic taken by some companies selling to French-speaking Canadians as well. L’Acadien ran advertisements for Sirop Mathieu that claimed to treat “Rheume, Grippe, Asthme, etc.”[8]

Modernity was frequently invoked to sell flu cure-alls. Thermogene Curative Wadding claimed, “The moment it is applied, a chemical action turns this into active energy – a soothing, comforting warmth that goes straight to the source of pain – gives instant relief and continues its good work till a cure is complete.”

The ad discredits the traditional treatments it is designed to replace. “It’s a wonderful advance over the old-fashioned, messy, uncomfortable poultice or plaster.” Thermogene’s modern, medical reliability is reiterated with the vague claim “Used by British Red Cross, Royal Navy, Army and hospitals.”[9]

Even the name, Thermogene, evokes the word eugenics and Francis Galton’s theories of degeneration – modern notions to consumers in 1918. Electricity, another symbol of modernity, was also touted as a cure for influenza. A Hamilton Spectator ad for the Branston Violet Ray High Frequency Generator promises a free demonstration at a local store. Purporting to cure a litany of ills, including Spanish influenza, the contraption pictured – model 99 – looks much like a phonograph trailing a rubber hose and face-mask. “Simply attach the cord to the electric light socket” and enjoy the “violet health rays” that ensue.[10]

The ideal-mother trope is repeatedly depicted in ads, with the often-unsubtle message that any woman who does not heed the medical advice of those ads is a very bad mother indeed. A Vapo-Cresolene ad from Redbook magazine in 1920 that claims to treat influenza along with whooping cough features a graphic of a little girl cuddled up with her doll on a pillow, asleep, while a Vapo-Cresolene lamp emits its soothing fumes above. A testimonial from Mrs. Ballington Booth admonishes readers with “No family, where there are young children, should be without this lamp.”[11]

While a tepid and censored press at first played down and even made light of the pandemic, roughly one-third of all Canadians were sickened and approximately 55,000 died.[12] Fear was in the air. But while civic authorities downplayed that fear, advertisers blatantly played it up. A full-page colour advertisement for Lysol appeared on the coveted back page of the September 1919 Ladies Home Journal, an American publication hugely popular in Canada. The ad was designed to terrify. A large, mad dog, frothing at the mouth, charges down the street. It is within pouncing range of a family. A man corrals three children behind him, leaving only his unprotected body between them and the imminent threat. The cover line is ominous: “The Disease Germ Is More Dangerous Than the Mad Dog.”[13] The text continues:

But how about the unseen menace – more threatening, more fatal, more cruel than a million mad dogs – a menace that threatens your family, your community and yourself all the time – the disease germ? A cuspidor that is not kept sterile not only can, but will, spread tuberculosis, grippe, influenza, and other grave diseases.[14]

Then comes the reassuring pitch, designed to conquer both fear and germs: “You can make the danger-places in your home completely germ proof by the regular use of Lysol Disinfectant…[15]

Examining what Canadians read about the pandemic in their morning and evening newspapers and in their favourite magazines shows how that information was shaped by the powerful dual forces of a highly censored press and emergent consumerism. In this atmosphere, misleading advertising played a far more significant role than it would have in peacetime and therefore contributed a great deal to how the Canadian public perceived the pandemic.

Kate Barker is an award-winning journalist, a PhD candidate in history, at York University and a former instructor at the Ryerson University School of Journalism. Her dissertation is a cultural and environmental history of influenza in Canada. This is a shortened version of a paper she presented in 2019 at the Cultural Histories of the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919 international conference at Goethe University, Frankfurt. You can find her on Twitter @kate4barker and Instagram at katebarkerjourno.

This article is reprinted with permission from the author, and with credit to for its publication.

[1] W.H. Kesterton, A History of Journalism in Canada (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967), 39 and Jeffrey Keshen, Propaganda and Censorship During Canada’s Great War. (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1996), 11.

[2] Keshen, Propaganda and Censorship, 79.

[3] The Hamilton Spectator (October 24, 1918), 15.

[4] Lori Loeb, “George Fulford and Victorian Patent Medicine Men: Quack Mercenaries or Smilesian Entrepreneurs?” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, vol. 16 (1999), 128.

[5]Ibid., 135.

[6] The Simcoe Reformer, November 28, 1918.

[7] Canadian Magazine Advertiser (January 1919), 5 and Everywoman’s World (January 1919), 41.

[8] L’Acadien, March 10, 1920.

[9] Canadian Magazine Advertiser (January, 1919), 5.

[10] The Hamilton Spectator (October 22, 1918), 14.

[11] Redbook Magazine (January 1920), 108.

[12] Mark Osborne Humphries, The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 127.

[13] Ladies Home Journal (September 1919), 177.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

Featured image: “Infection Can’t Dent the Lysol Line,” Advertisement, Ladies Home Journal, May 1919 (detail).