Reuben Mark, the chief executive of Colgate-Palmolive, recently told Wall Street that the company plans to sell its laundry detergent brands, which for decades competed against products from Procter & Gamble and Unilever. The otherwise combative Mark is raising a whiter-than-white flag of surrender because, he explained, P&G's overwhelming lead makes any attempts to bolster Colgate's meagre market share of 10 per cent unacceptably unprofitable at a time when new products in oral care and pet foods are contributing hefty sales gains.
The decision to throw in the bright, fluffy towel quietly concludes a competition that in its heyday was as fierce as any contemporary donnybrook among sellers of wireless telephones, cars or fast food. In the US, Colgate marshalled mainstay brands such as Ad, Ajax, Dynamo, Fab, Salvo, Super Suds and Vel against the P&G entries including Cheer, Dash, Duz, Era, Gain, Oxydol and Tide and the Unilever offerings such as All, Rinso, Surf and Wisk. One prize in my collection of ad memorabilia is a twin-pack of Ad, "the advanced detergent for automatic washers".
Too bad Ad didn't advance into the 21st century; it's the perfect postmodern product, as in: "This is an ad for Ad."
Alas, that was the fate of most Colgate detergents, falling before the relentless onslaught of the Cincinnati soap kings at P&G. Agencies and clients still recount the cautionary tale of how Unilever and Colgate were hung out to dry on detergents by clinging too long to soap powders after P&G debuted Tide, the revolutionary "washday miracle". It was the soap-opera version of how American Tobacco, sticking with non-filtered smokes including Lucky Strike and Pall Mall, fell too far behind Philip Morris (Marlboro) and RJ Reynolds (Winston) ever to catch up.
Today, Colgate sells only three detergents in America (Ajax, Dynamo and Fab) and virtually stopped all ad spending for them in the 1990s. It's a far cry from the days when almost every consumer could sing along with the stalwart male chorus asserting that "Ajax laundry detergent is stronger than dirt!" or the chirpy housewife declaring, "Oh Fab, I'm glad they put real borax in you", subsequently amended to the tongue-twisting "active enzyme, lemon-freshened borax". (Those with very long memories, or unhealthy obsessions with old ads, may recall a Fab jingle sung to the tune of There'll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight, which began: "Oh, it cleans clear through and deodorises too" and ended: "That is a Fab wash, a Fab wash for you.")
The Colgate detergents are classic examples of ghost brands: former best-sellers that, losing their leadership status, are reduced to ghosts of their former selves, haunting store shelves until sold, spun-off or discontinued. That woeful finale is typical for detergents, where today's shoppers crave either product news in the form of innovations or splashy, entertaining ads.
Because Colgate provided neither, its ghostlike detergents are disappearing.
To evoke the words of two seminal American cultural influences of the 1950s - General Douglas MacArthur and Colgate toothpaste commercials - Ajax, Dynamo and Fab are never going to die; they're just going to fade, fade, fade away.