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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 July 2005, 23:01 GMT 00:01 UK
Dirt is good, despite the ads

By Peter Day
Presenter, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service

Persil Ad
Persil ads in the UK talk reassuringly about dirt

For all the money spent on doing it, it sometimes seems that advertising has not advanced very far from the days four centuries ago when it mostly consisted of hanging a bush outside a public house to signify that conviviality and drink was available within.

Much advertising still seems to consist of the ceaseless repetition of brand names over and over again in the hope that they are drummed into the heads of pliant but not very bright consumers - roughly what advertisers did when the mass media were first invented in the 19th century.

I have a hunch that this sort of advertising is not going to work for very much longer.

It is therefore nice to commend a recent series of British posters for a product as mundane as Persil washing powder.

Persil is an interesting brand since it is shared in Europe between two rival manufacturers, the Anglo-Dutch Unilever in Britain and Henkel in Germany. Neither seem able to buy the other out.

The British Persil ads may not look particularly striking at first glance, but they have a theme which probably appeals to every mother without a drop of the sentimentality that normally comes over advertising's creative types when they think about families.

The Persil theme is "it's not dirt."

The children in the ads are involved in ordinary growing up activities: during which they mess up their clothes.

Persil will wash them clean again.

The same with messy pensioners.

Warm feelings

No histrionics, no big claims, just a warm association with the instinctive horror of a mucky child's mum turned into appreciation by second thoughts shared by the advertiser.

These are cracking ads: modest, almost shy, and very winning.

Sympathy from a faceless corporation reaching out to touch the consumer.

The associated "It's not dirt" website lists dozens of dirty things to do that Persil will wash white again, afterwards.

It uses the inevitable survey to show how frightened we have become of innocent pursuits that may make us dirty.

Unilever has just launched a campaign with an identical theme in Turkey, using their Omo brand there.

East German difference

These ads reminded me of an enlightening encounter I had in what used to be East Berlin 18 months ago.

It was just after the very successful release of the film Goodbye Lenin, brimming with nostalgia for the vanished values and consumer goods of the old East Germany, mainly pickles and polishes,

Puzzled by the sputtering of the German success machine in the past 10 years, I sought some insights from the Ossies (the people who live in East Germany), not the gloomy Wessies.

I went to see what was happening in the East through the eyes of a young German advertising man called Alexander Mackat.

He was East German; half Russian, in fact.

His father was still a Communist, mourning the demise of the past.

Alexander was in his late teens when the Berlin Wall came down.

He crossed over straight away and sold his services to a West Berlin TV station, then got into filming and eventually advertising.

His agency Fritzsch and Mackat specialises in advertising with an East German twist.

Another tribe

"Anthropologists suggest that East Germans now have the attributes of a tribe," he told me.

"Surveys show that we sit closer together on trains than the Wessies.We have more sex. We don't play golf. And we don't really know any West Germans, except as bosses or on TV. We've a bit different".

And Alexander Mackat argues that this observation means that advertisers needed a different approach when it came to advertising to East Germans, who had for long been satisfied with their own goods and brand names, and felt bereft when they mostly disappeared with the Berlin Wall.

His illustration was Persil (the German one that is),

The company came to Fritzsch and Mackat with a problem. They said they were not reaching the new potential users in the East, and wanted help..

The agency did some research.

Persil's current advertising stressed its pre-eminence as the whitest wash in the world.

"East German housewives don't want that," said Mr Mackat. "They just want decently clean clothes."

The pan-German Persil ads showed a German hausfrau at work, beautifully turned out and glowing with health.

In the background was her spacious home, shining with the latest gadgets.

"East German women can't identify with that sort of thing," said Fritzsch and Mackat.

They took the hausfrau and the bungalow out of the ads, and toned down the world beating claims.

The ad they unveiled for the Ossies said something modest such as "Best for coloureds". And it worked.

Austrian washing powder

And not just in Eastern Germany. A day after it aired for the first time, the phone rang.

It was the Austrians, long included in the catch-all German advertising,.

"We've had to endure these West German ads for years," they said. "We want yours," they told the East German advertising pioneers.

From this story and others in Eastern Germany I deduced that the Ossies may have quite a lot to teach the West Germans about aspirations and expectations.

This is even more true now that they have expressly been told by the German President that they must not expect the same standard of living as their compatriots in the West.

In just the same way, we may all be ready for a new kind of advertising: Ads that ignore the Big Lie claim and respect the quirks of the individual.

Maybe we can learn something from the East Germans and Persil.

Dirt is good, really.


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