Persil ads break from past: Persil’s new washing-detergent tablet marks a radical shift in the sector with a marketing strategy designed to reflect this. Robert McLuhan looks at the impact on its rivals

Tell it like it is - that’s the keynote of J. Walter Thompson’s mould-breaking campaign for Persil Tablets, at number seven in this week’s Adwatch - its highest spot.

Tell it like it is - that’s the keynote of J. Walter Thompson’s

mould-breaking campaign for Persil Tablets, at number seven in this

week’s Adwatch - its highest spot.

Bored of hyperbole in soap ads consumers want to hear the truth, the

agency’s research revealed. With an innovative product, genuinely likely

to save time and trouble, it seemed good sense to let them do the


So the television campaign, launched in May, shows men and women telling

an unseen interviewer what they like about the product. Two launch

commercials of 60 seconds each spelled out the message over the first

few weeks, followed now by eight 20-second spots.

The interviewees’ answers are deadpan and ironic - a conscious swipe at

the patronising sales patter long associated with soap advertising - but

stress the convenience of the format. ’It’s hardly rocket science,’ says


This belated outbreak of honesty goes beyond the advertising. The

advantages of pre-dosage formats have been obvious since the appearance

of the first tea bags, but until now no soap company has seen any point

in encouraging consumers to be economical with its product.

However, that began to change with the introduction of concentrated


’We discovered that 70% of consumers routinely overdosed by about 30%,

because they were used to the larger quantities and didn’t believe the

smaller amount would work,’ says John Ballington, corporate affairs

director at Lever Brothers, the home laundry division of Unilever.

’But that doesn’t mean we sell more, because people stop buying the

product altogether,’ he adds. It was in the company’s interests to find

ways to prevent wastage.

As for the delay in getting the product to market, Ballington says there

have been difficulties in finding the right consistency, so that the

tablets dissolve in water but don’t break up in the packet.

Unless manufacturers can find a way of getting value back into

concentrates he believes there will be a gradual simplification in the

market, with a single-strength brand eventually marketed in powder,

tablet and liquid form.

The tablets innovation could help reverse a long decline. In the mid-70s

Lever ran neck and neck with Procter & Gamble, which markets Persil’s

arch-rival Ariel. But since then it has lost out to the steady advance

of retailers’ brands like Safeway’s Cyclon and Asda’s Logic, leaving P&G

the dominant player with more than half the market.

Lever’s morale crashed four years ago when its new brand, Persil Power,

had to be dramatically withdrawn. Procter & Gamble spotted that a

manganese accelerator included in the formula to give greater cleaning

power was rotting clothes in the wash.

But take-up on the new tablets has been brisk, Lever says, strengthening

a recent upturn. According to IRI, its value share rose from 27% last

year to 30%, at the expense of P&G which dropped from 57%% to 54%, with

retailers’ brands remaining steady at 14%.

Lever’s advantage may be short-lived, as P&G is test marketing its own

Ariel Discs in Grimsby and Cleethorpes. The company denies that this

move is related to the Persil initiative and says it has been testing

the viability of tablets for some time.

P&G has no date for a launch and says it will only market the product

when it is sure that customers want it. But this coolness under fire is

unlikely to last - if Persil Tablets catches on nationally there will be

rush to catch up, whatever the good folk of Grimsby think.