Household Cleansers

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Household cleanser advertising got off to a poetic start in the mid-1870s, when Enoch Morgan's Sons, a New York soap maker, began branding a small gray cake of scouring soap "Sapolio." (The Morgan family sought medical advice in developing the brand name, asking their family physician for help with a Latin-sounding name.) Early advertising for the product, which initially was sold seasonally for spring and fall cleanings, came in the form of pamphlets with rhymes.

In 1900, Sapolio returned to verse, a ploy it had used earlier, in a campaign based on a mythical town where all the inhabitants testified to Sapolio's superiority. Soon the public was anticipating Sapolio ads with the same eagerness that it awaited installments of serial novels. The campaign ran for six years, ultimately inspiring real towns to pass resolutions to become as spotless as Spotless Town.

Through advertising, Sapolio not only became a year-round product, but also joined Procter & Gamble Co.'s Ivory soap (positioned primarily as a toilet soap for personal cleansing), Royal baking powder and the Douglas Shoe as the best known brands of the day.

As the 20th century moved onward, Sapolio gave way to more versatile products such as Lysol, ammonia and soap flakes. Advertising for those products tended toward the mundane, focusing on their benefits. The economic privations of the Depression and shortages of animal fat for production of household detergents during World War II crimped cleanser advertising.

Betty Boop meets Mr. Clean

What could be called the golden age of cleanser commercials dawned after World War II as companies such as P&G and Colgate-Palmolive Peet Co. returned to full production. When P&G's Mr. Clean emerged from magazine ads to TV in 1959, it ushered in a resurgence of cleanser advertising icons that lasted into the mid-1970s, spawning Josephine the Plumber, spreading the Comet cleanser gospel even as she unplugged drains; the Ajax White Knight and "White Tornado" campaigns, with their "Stronger than dirt" reprise; and Dow Bathroom Cleaner's scrubbing bubbles.

P&G and Lever Brothers competed against a host of smaller manufacturers trying to elbow their way to dominance in the postwar household cleaning business. Brands such as Old Dutch, Kitchen Klenzer, Vano, Nylofoam, Liqua-Zone, Tish, Scoop and Zeen came and went. The postwar cleanser business approximated something similar to a gold rush mentality. In 1946, Advertising Age estimated that more than 200 companies were competing in the cleanser business, of which 125 advertised, 85 using national magazines and 14 using network radio. The number of competitors had doubled between 1940 and 1946.

P&G ultimately carried the day using multiple brands with multiple positions, including Mr. Clean, Spic and Span, Top Job and Lestoil. The technology behind its Tide synthetic heavy-duty laundry detergent began finding its way into household cleansers, helping give P&G an edge that knocked many regional competitors, along with Unilever, out of the U.S. household cleanser business.

Of all the cleaning aisle's advertising icons, P&G's Mr. Clean still towers above the rest, both literally and figuratively. The bald, muscle-bound, earring-wearing, eyebrow-raising creation of Tatham-Laird, Chicago, premiered in magazine ads in 1958. Mr. Clean captured leadership of the household cleanser aisle in the 1960s. In a 1985 survey, Mr. Clean had name recognition among 93% of Americans, according to a survey commissioned by P&G, almost twice that of then-U.S. Vice President George Bush.

Mr. Clean's pre-eminence came under challenge from Clorox Co., which acquired Formula 409 and Pine Sol in the 1990s to dominate the category. Mr. Clean really stuck his foot in the bucket in 1994, when P&G made the strategic misstep of concentrating the product so that it would take less shelf space. Clorox did not follow suit, and its products, which appeared bigger and better priced on store shelves, accelerated gains over Mr. Clean. As P&G celebrated Mr. Clean's 40th birthday in 1998, the marketer reverted to its original nonconcentrated formula but without doing much to regain market share. Still, the strength of the icon endured. Both the Honda automobile and EconoLodge motel chain borrowed him for ad campaigns of their own in the late 1990s.

Josephine the Plumber

Similarly, Josephine the Plumber's impact spread beyond her category. Launched in 1963 in a campaign by Compton Advertising, Josephine, played by actress Jane Withers, spent 11 years praising P&G's Comet and proving its effectiveness against "another" leading brand in side-by-side comparisons removing stains from sinks, bathtubs, and kitchen countertops. Josephine was retired in 1974, but she served as a role model for another P&G working-class heroine, Rosie the Waitress, played by actress Nancy Walker, who also made use of side-by-side demos to prove that Bounty paper towels were the "Quicker picker upper." Josephine's archrival in the powder cleanser business was Colgate's Ajax, introduced in the 1940s via agency Sherman & Marquette.

Increased competition in the category, however, forced Colgate to become more aggressive in its advertising. In 1963, a campaign by Norman, Craig & Kummel depicted Ajax as having the cleaning power of a "white tornado." The campaign ran through the early 1970s. Buttressing those efforts were ads for Ajax laundry detergent featuring a knight in shining armor galloping on horseback. The memorable musical tagline, "Stronger than dirt," linked both campaigns.

Another working-class heroine, Madge, appeared on behalf of Colgate's Palmolive dish soap via Young & Rubicam, doing a decade's worth of Palmolive manicures to demonstrate the light-duty liquid's gentleness on hands.

Renewed efforts

By the end of the 1990s, cleansing power was no longer the drawing card it had been, and house cleaning took second priority to work and leisure activities. Household product makers turned renewed attention to the category with new brands and benefits.

In an effort to bring its dominant position in Mexico with it to the U.S., Colgate introduced its Fabuloso cleaner brand north of the border in 1996. Despite minimal advertising, Fabuloso did well in U.S. Latino markets, helped by its floral scent. Colgate applied the idea of adding fragrance to dishwashing liquid, launching Palmolive Spring Sensations with "aromatherapy" scents, carrying such names as Ocean Breeze and Spring Blossom. Backed by ads from Y&R, Spring Sensations helped Palmolive close the gap with P&G's Dawn dishwashing liquid.

Eliminating odors was the idea behind P&G's Febreze brand, launched in 1998 with ads from Grey Advertising, New York. Febreze transferred a benefit from the air freshener category into household cleaning, promising a spray that "permanently cleans away" odors with molecules that chemically bind odor particles. Febreze had sales of more than $250 million in the U.S. its first year, making it second only to Nabisco Foods' SnackWells fat-free cookie and cracker line among new packaged-goods brands in the 1990s.

Convenience also became a chief selling point. In 1994, Kao Corp. in Japan launched the Quickle Wiper, a swivel-head mop with an electrostatic dust cloth attached that could be used for mopping floors or dusting other surfaces. Noting the success, P&G launched its Swiffer brand into test market in 1998 and global distribution a year later, with ads from D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York, featuring a tagline suggested by Barefoot Advertising, Cincinnati: "When Swiffer's the one, consider it done." S.C. Johnson & Son licensed Kao's Quickle product and rolled it out in the U.S. and Europe under the Pledge Grab-It brand.

A year later, P&G introduced two Swiffer line extensions—Swiffer Max, a larger, better-performing version, and Swiffer Wet, a wet cloth for bucketless floor cleaning. Waiting in the wings was Swiffer WetJet, a battery-powered product with replaceable cleaning solution, which P&G introduced in Canada and Belgium. P&G rolled out Swiffer WetJet in the U.S. in August 2001 at the then unheard-of price of nearly $50, after successful runs in Belgium and Canada. Clorox was poised to counter with its own pump-operated Clorox Ready Mop, another bucketless floor cleaning system operated by pump rather than motor.

Swiffer ads took a step few cleaning brands had before by showing men cleaning. One execution for the original Swiffer featured an all-male song-and-dance routine singing the praises and showing the ease of using Swiffer.

Harkening to earlier days of demo-laden ads and hard sells, tiny Orange Glo International built a $400 million-plus business for itself early in the 21st century with direct-response ads featuring pitchman Billy Mays and such products as Oxi Clean, Orange Glo and Kaboom!

Meanwhile, P&G’s homecare business, long a stepchild to bigger, faster-growing businesses and categories, was rejuvenated by the company’s new global business unit structure, putting more advertising and product innovation behind the long-neglected Mr. Clean brand and rolling it into new categories in the U.S. with the Magic Eraser sponge and Auto Dry towel-free car cleaning kit in 2003 and 2004.

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