But it's more likely in fact, that laundry is just beginning a new phase. Turns out that in laundry, like history, the end of one cycle just means the start of the next.
Arbor Strategy Group, a new-product consulting firm that has tracked the history of package-goods launches for many years, found most categories ultimately spawn a product labeled "total" or "complete" at the tail end of a lengthy bout of product and benefit proliferation. Then competitors start all over again with single-benefit claims.
Indeed, people close to P&G say that after several years of multi-benefit products across many categories inspired by the 2001 launch of Olay Total Effects, the tide is turning back to single-benefit products.
Ralph Blessing, a partner with Arbor Strategy, said P&G even recently moved toward advertising a single benefit, moisturizing, with a single brand name (Aquacurrent Science) across multiple brands including Olay, Pantene, Secret and Cover Girl.
If Mr. Blessing sounds like he's seen it all before, maybe he has. As a marketer on Unilever's Suave, he spent years tracking and duplicating product benefits in personal care. Arbor Strategy Group has a museum of such things: an office-warehouse space in Ann Arbor, Mich., with more than 70,000 products spanning decades, inherited via the 2001 acquisition of Robert McMath's New Products Showcase and Learning Center in Ithaca, N.Y.
The collection is a living testament to "what goes around comes around," including a specimen from the 1970s, the first time Gillette launched a shampoo, before doing so again earlier this summer under P&G.
The collection also includes plenty of "total" and "complete" products, such as Crest Complete toothbrushes and toothpaste, followed by Colgate Total, both from the 1990s and both precursors of many more single-benefit products.
P&G in particular has made a habit of launching multibenefit products in recent years, reapplying similar ad lines where possible. Following Olay Total Effects, which addressed the "seven signs of aging" beginning in 2001, was Crest Pro-Health Toothpaste in 2006 to address the seven things dentists look at most.
Then last year came Iams ProActive Health dog and cat food (addressing the "seven signs of healthy dogs and cats") and Swiffer (which could muster only five signs of clean floors), followed by Tide Total Care with the "seven signs of beautiful clothes."
The sevens (and fives) have been lucky. All the initiatives but Iams have gained market share -- in the cases of Crest and Olay adding several percentage points.
"Seven signs" may sound apocalyptic, but P&G has shown there is life after solving every conceivable problem: Just promise to solve some even better. Case in point is recently launched Crest Weekly Clean Intensive Care toothpaste, designed as a supplement to provide more polishing and stain removal than Pro-Health alone. The goal: to give consumers that smooth feeling they get after leaving the dentist after he's gone over those seven things in an office visit.
Of course, not everything in "total" products is totally new. Sometimes they also help remind consumers of benefits long since forgotten.
When P&G rolled out its double-concentrated detergents last year, one reason it didn't go with triple concentrates (as Method and Unilever did) was because they wouldn't work with Carezyme, an enzyme that prevents fuzzing and fading of clothes. Yet P&G hadn't even advertised those benefits since the mid-1990s, when it first licensed the enzyme from Denmark's Novo Nordisk. So Tide Total Care's new ads, featuring Tim Gunn of "Project Runway," can bring a new generation of consumers up to speed.
Carezyme is just one piece of Total Care's "protective fiber complex," said P&G spokesman Kash Shaikh, who noted that it also includes a silicone base and additional polymers to preserve shape, fit and finish. P&G research showed that some women rarely wear their favorite clothes for fear of losing those qualities.
New multibenefit products, Mr. Shaikh added, are better than old ones. "Old two-in-ones did two things but not very well," he said. "Nowadays, the standard is much higher."
Just don't be surprised if the total solution isn't the last word. Olay has launched three entire ranges of products since Total Effects.
But don't consumers feel cheated when "total" products turn out to be not all that when improved single-benefit products arrive?
"I don't think anybody really cares," said Doug Hall, a former P&G executive who runs product-consulting firm Richard Saunders International near Cincinnati. "It's the circle of life. After the winter comes spring, and these fads, too, must pass."