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The dustup in Europe between detergent rivals Procter & Gamble and Unilever is puzzling. And troubling. This lose/lose situation for the companies also is bound to harm public perceptions of marketing in general.

Here's normally reticent P&G sending its chairman overseas to battle Unilever in the press about whether the latter's new "Power" detergents damage fabrics. Unilever, No. 2 in Europe's detergent wars, fights back, suing P&G in a Dutch court for "untruthful and misleading" statements.

Both companies have hired independent testing labs to back up their claims that the patented manganese-based substance is safe/unsafe to clothing as it cleans. It's obviously going to be a standoff.

Public wrangling of this type is uncharacteristic for giant P&G. While the company is known to fight for what it believes in, as it did here in the so-called "phosphate war" back in the '70s, it never before so publicly challenged a rival's product development with other-than-normal marketing tactics.

We find ourselves wondering whether this fight goes beyond detergents, possibly to a great corporate bitterness over Unilever's undermining of olestra, P&G's fat substitute, during the governmental approval process in the U.S., as discussed on this page last week.

P&G says it's speaking out against the new Unilever products because it fears its own detergent brands might suffer. With brand-switching common, consumers may blame the last detergent used if clothes come out of the washer with holes where they shouldn't be. Maybe. But there's a false ring as P&G rushes to put stickers labeled "Power" on its own brands (also a part of Unilever's legal action).

Wouldn't its case be more believable if P&G instead labeled its brands with a line like "Contains no ingredient harmful to fabrics"? Or "Proven safe to fabrics"?

With both sides offering "experts" to make their case, maybe we-and, more important, consumers-need to hear from the clothing manufacturers about this cleaning discovery. Consumers are more likely to blame the clothes maker, not the detergent, if the fabrics wear out before their time.

And if it turns out the clothing brands aren't concerned, P&G should get off its soap box.

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