Surf ads' difference is their indifference

By Published on .

Advertiser: Lever Bros.
Agency: Ogilvy & Mather, New York
Rating: 3 stars

The trademark effect of the new Surf campaign is a nifty visual vortex, bending and twisting the screen image into a relentless spiral.

Presumably it's supposed to suggest water swirling in a washer, or maybe the churning of the surf. But it especially resembles colorful TV ads being flushed down the toilet. Which is possibly what Ogilvy & Mather, New York, is doing with this campaign for the Lever Bros. detergent.

We rather suspect not, however. While this weird, subversive little entry bends both images and the rules of advertising, it may also send Surf swirling out of obscurity.


From the first frame these spots break through. The toes belong to a tired housewife, sunning herself out back while the wash hangs on the line. In the background, her yappy little terrier snaps at a bedsheet.

Voice-over: " `Finally,' she thought. `Kids off at school, husband at work, chores done, all the chores done. Finally a moment of complete and total freedom--just me and the dog. Where is that dog, anyway?' "

He's grabbing the sheet, and pulling the clothesline to the ground, is where. Then that intriguing vortex, a visual mnemonic sinking its teeth into you like an obnoxious little dog, and then the wry tagline: "It's a dirty job. Somebody's got to do it."

Another spot portrays a bored young woman in a laundromat, contemplating a cute guy outside, only to have a nightmare nerd plop down in front of her. Another concerns that bewildering fifth dimension of missing socks.

So, yes, at least in terms of plot, these spots are unusually relevant to the matter at hand. They're also unusually irrelevant to the matter at hand--because they refuse to commend, or even explain, Surf itself. Is it a color-brightening detergent? A cold-water formula? Whitener? Stain specialist? Liquid? Powder?

We'll never know. The brand benefit, it would seem, is hipness. Surf is for those indifferent launderers whose only interest in the chore is being finished, who ignore efficacy claims, who are drawn to a brand that acknowledges their distance from the slice-of-life ladies who see one dingy load and question their right to live.

Don't give a rat's ass how white your whites are? Try Surf.

Hey, why not? Think of Nike. Pepsi-Cola. Bud Light. Marlboro. Hathaway shirts. They've all proved that brand personality, brand attitude and brand meaning can be elevated to brand benefits.

That approach, however, usually serves brands otherwise indistinguishable from the competition. This isn't, "OK, we sell ordinary men's shirts. Let's put an eyepatch on our model." This is more like: "We sell men's shirts spun out of Bengal tiger whiskers, but let's not mention it. We'll just put an eyepatch on the model." Very peculiar.

Are Ogilvy and Lever making a demographic bet, playing to the Xers' fabled ironic detachment? We hope not. Generation X probably has about the same percentage of laundry-obsessed consumers as all previous generations. This campaign makes more sense as a psychographic bet--namely, that a fringe brand can be energized by disavowing the conventions, preoccupations and insipid presumptions of the category.

It could work. Or it could take Surf spiraling down the drain.

This isn't Procter, but it sure is a gamble.

Copyright February 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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