PERSIL SPOT DOESN'T SELL, IT BLUDGEONS

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Your first thought, upon seeing the J. Walter Thompson, London, introduction of "new" Persil laundry detergent, is: "This is a joke, right?" It is not enough to say the commercials attach disproportionate significance to developments in laundry technology. They discuss it in terms of religious enlightenment.

"All over the country, people are discovering a new power," intones the voiceover, as a kitchen's eerie, blue-tinted gloom is penetrated by a supernatural shaft of white light. Blinding white light. It's coming from inside a cabinet and it frightens the parakeet, rattles the pasta. Pray, what new power is this? Is it God? Is it bigger than God? Is it GATT?

No, it's "a power to stop worrying about stains like these."

Ah, but of course. Then the scene changes and a lady accidentally splatters Indian takeaway on her white blouse. Yet she is unruffled. "Don't worry," she says to her bewildered friend. "It's only a curry. I'll take it away later."

Only a curry. This is like your doctor saying it's "only a tumor." And at this point comes your second thought: Even though this overwrought commercial borders on self-parody, it'll be interesting to see what alleged new ingredient is going to remove a curry stain from white linen. So now a box of laundry detergent emerges, bathed in that otherwordly white glow.

"It's called new Persil Power," says the voiceover, "and it has the power of the unique, patented "`Accelerator."'

And then another slice of laundry life: a man jostled while navigating a crowded cocktail party, and spilling a glass of merlot on his white knit shirt. "Don't worry," his wife says cheerfully. "A splash of color quite suits you." Hmmm. She must have been visited in the night by that divine light, and it has either done wonders for the wash or short-circuited her frontal lobe.

At this stage, even before the demo sequence, we have gotten the point. This new "Accelerator" has extraordinary stain-removal properties. What we don't know is how extraordinary they are compared to years and years of similarly hyped laundry-soap developments that never seemed as miraculous as they were portrayed. We are not informed, for instance, that "Accelerator" is a manganese compound that penetrates clothing fibers with unprecedented vigor (albeit less vigor than a week ago, now that Unilever has reduced the manganese content following rival Procter & Gamble's claim that the compound weakens fibers and rots clothes).

Undoubtedly this ad works in precisely the way it was intended to, in the way of many commercials that care little for how clever they are so long as the message gets across. And across the message gets. But communication isn't necessarily persuasion.

The question is whether the consumer will be impressed by the characters' remarkable food-stain unflappability, or suspicious of it. Though manganese reportedly has precisely the stain-attacking qualities the ads claim, the ads still seem ridiculously overblown. In resorting to such soap-powder melodrama, Unilever and JWT risk not being taken seriously-because even after you realize this campaign isn't a joke, you'd be forgiven for assuming it's a lie.

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