Once as closely associated with adolescence as algebra, orthodontists have in recent years treated growing numbers of adults.
From 1994 to 2010, the number of Americans 18 and older getting braces or some other teeth-straightening treatment from an orthodontist has jumped 58 percent, to 1.1 million from 680,000 annually, according to the American Association of Orthodontists.
Over the same period, the number of patients under 18 increased at a slower pace of 15 percent. In 2010, adults accounted for 22 percent of patients, up from 17 percent in 1994.
Now orthodontists are introducing what they say is a first -- a national advertising campaign pitched primarily to prospective adult patients.
New commercials from the association show adults almost exclusively. Actors with enviable smiles beam in the ads, with one woman saying her straighter teeth gave her self-confidence, another saying she likes flashing her pearly whites on dates, and a man in his 30s saying, "It's never too late."
The only two children in three spots are portrayed with parents. In one, the father of a boy says, "So then he said to me, 'What about you, Dad?' "
One reason for the commercials is to differentiate between dentists and orthodontists. Dentists are increasingly getting into the teeth-straightening business with clear, removable aligners made by companies including Align Technology, which makes Invisalign.
"Whether you're considering clear liners, retainers, or traditional braces, an orthodontist is the smart choice," says the voiceover. "Orthodontists are specialists in aligning teeth and straightening your bite, so get a great smile that feels great, too."
While the implication is that going to a dentist for a straightening procedure like Invisalign (which orthodontists offer as well) would not be a "smart choice," orthodontists make the point with some delicacy because they are so reliant on dentists for referrals.
The commercials are by Athorn, Clark & Partners, a New York marketing communications firm. They began running in January on cable channels including Bravo, TLC, and the E! Entertainment Television.
The campaign, which includes print, radio, and online advertising, has an estimated budget of $5 million.
Highlighted at the end of each spot is the new link for the orthodontist association, MyLifeMySmile.org, formerly Braces.org.
"A lot of people who are 30, 40 or 50 probably have a fairly outdated idea of what orthodontics is and they probably go back to a time when it was literally a mouthful," said George Clark, a co-founder of Athorn, Clark & Partners, which also designed the new site.
Along with encompassing orthodontics beyond braces, the new name may imply that treatment can improve not just looks, but outlooks.
"We're trying to emphasize the adult market and show how good they're going to look and how much self confidence that's going to create," said Dr. Michael B. Rogers, the president of the American Association of Orthodontists. "There are many adults on the fence and we want to show them the benefits of braces."