Are you old enough to remember the Madison Avenue fabrications (pun intended) of “Ring Around the Collar” and “Visible Panty Line”? If not, ask your parents. Inventing a non-existing problem to sell or boost a product is a tried and true consumer product company ruse (think Big Pharma) and it continues today in the soap “space” – as ad agencies call a marketing area.
After World War II, “America suddenly had to figure out how to get a nation of Rosie the Riveters back off the payroll and into the kitchen,” she wrote and “the twin forces of capitalism and advertising were immediately employed to convince women that household chores were just as appealing as saving America had been.”
Soap Ads Are Back With a Vengeance
Anyone exposed to TV and radio knows that soap ads are back today with products that address new, invented problems.
For example, do you think your clothes are odor free just because you washed them?
Think again, says a Procter & Gamble broadcast ad for Downy Rinse and Refresh using a simulacrum of the Back Street Boys musical group. “You gotta get rid of this,” says a mom sniffing a shirt she has apparently just washed. “Tell me why,” ask the Boys and the mom replies “because it stinks.” Other soap ads also warn that your just washed clothes might stink.
But beware of fabric softeners and dryer sheets say environmental groups. “Most are composed of noxious chemicals combined with a hefty dose of synthetic fragrance chemicals,” according to Ecology Works.
“These fragrance chemicals have been designed to cling to fabric fibers so that the signature scent stays on the clothing long after it’s been washed and dried. In fact, it may take as many as twelve to fifteen wash cycles to completely remove the chemical residue from your clothing, bedding, and linens.”
The chemicals can “directly affect the nervous system and endocrine system,” adds Ecology Works.
Still, it is the tenacity of “odors” not chemicals that soap ads are currently trumpeting, exhibit A being the debut in Procter & Gamble’s ads for the Febreze of the hygiene risk of “odor transfer.” Smells sell. According to P&G, the “fabric refresher” Febreze is the “preeminent brand for providing a fresh, clean scent and eliminating odors from fabrics and the air.”
Dissing Their Own Product for $ales
Consumer product companies are so eager to grow profits they are willing to accept the risk that floating new problems disses their existing products.
Consider an ad for Procter & Gamble’s Tide Free and Gentle Liquid in which the skin problems of a couple’s little girl were found to be created not by her puppy but by their “old detergent.” Tide Free and Gentle Liquid lacks such “irritating residues” and “dyes” says the couple.
But was the old detergent Tide? Why was a free and gentle product necessary? The ads don’t say.
Other ads, some found to be misleading, exalt over how many more washes a new product allows, raising the question of whether the old detergent skimped on the number of washes if the new claims are true.
Other Problems Beyond Human Health
The new soap ads not only insult the consumer’s intelligence with their doubletalk while risking their health with dangerous chemicals like benzene, many wreak havoc on poorer counties too.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Procter & Gamble sources its wood pulp and palm oil from climate-critical forests in the Canadian boreal and southeast Asia. The products, “from over a thousand mills in Indonesia and Malaysia,” are linked to ongoing “land rights abuses, the destruction of lowland rainforests and peatlands” and illegal plantations in Indonesia, says NRDC.
“Ring Around The Collar” Ads Persist
Decades ago in a soap ad, a husband in the shower throws a shirt over the curtain rod to his wife in disgust because it suffered from “ring around the collar.”
In addition to the sexism inherent in blaming a wife for laundry infractions, the ad campaign was notorious for inventing a hygiene problem to sell a product.
Today’s gimmicky soap war ads are just as manipulative and should be similarly thrown over a curtain rod.
Martha Rosenberg’s most recent book is Big Food, Big Pharma, Big Lies.