Top fantasy: why we love shampoo

It's the ultimate consumer product because we actually obey the ads. Susan Irvine reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
WE ALL know that shampoo is a mundane substance designed to get dirt out of our hair. Right? Wrong. Shampoo is not really about removing dirt from our hair, it's about waving a magic wand over it and transforming it, hey presto! from say David Mellor's lank locks to Michael Heseltine's thick mane, bouncy with body. Shampoo is the stuff of fantasy.

If it weren't we'd all probably just use washing-up liquid like my old flatmate, who used to carry a bottle of Fairy Liquid ostentatiously into the bathroom, announcing: "And it cleans the bath at the same time." For most of us, this is precisely what turns us off. Do you want a shampoo you could share with the dishes, the cat, and maybe even the carpet? No. You want something unique that will draw out the lustrous, glamorous potential that lies locked within your scruffy little strands. You want the Promised Strands, and you still think you will find them in a bottle of shampoo.

This is why we respond like obedient laboratory rats to television advertisements about shampoo. According to the recent BrandTrack survey in Marketing Week, shampoo com- mercials are more successful than any other commercial they have reviewed. "It's the triumph of hope over experience," says Elaine Hunt of The Human Factor market research agency. "And there is some basis for hope. Changing your hair is within your power. Changing your nose isn't, without surgery."

Yearning for wish fulfilment means buyers are fickle. We tend to have two or three shampoos on the go at any time, an old faithful and a couple of thrusting new shampoos that we're hoping will deliver the miracle. The urban myth that your hair gets fed up with a shampoo and needs a change after six months or so only adds to the mania. Sense tells us that hair is dead and incapable of caring about change. But sense has nothing to do with it. Sixty-six per cent of consumers say that the desire to try a new shampoo influences their purchase.

To hitch up that faithless customer, haircare companies spend millions. Procter & Gamble spends more than £8.5m annually advertising Pantene, 86 per cent of it on television. Organics, launched this summer, is spending £3.5m. Both know that the more commercials you show on television for your shampoo the more people buy it. Simple as that. But why should this be so? Shampoo commercials are severely undernourishing when it comes to creativity. Pantene, which languished for years until it was relaunched with an intensive television campaign two years ago, had the highest advert recall of them all. In Marketing Week's survey it was bought by more than twice as many people as any other brand, 75 per cent of whom said they had been influenced by the television advert.

The Pantene commercial is the one in which ex-model Kathleen Baird-Murray, now beauty editor of You and Your Wedding magazine, stars in a number of "beauty editor lifestyle" scenarios proclaiming the good news about Pantene's "pro-vitamin B5". Kathleen provides the visual stimulus of having hair like peat-coloured patent leather, and she projects the authority of the "beauty expert".

In the latest advert, she is on a photoshoot pointing out that most models think they have good hair until they see themselves in close-up (camera zooms in for a shock-horror view of what, in fact, are perfect tresses). Cut to a huge illustration of a hair on which little vitamin pills land and stick. Whazzam! A flash of light illuminates the hair shaft. It has absorbed the vitamins! Now it will be glossy, thick: the Promised Strands.

Instead of sensibly channel-surfing when this hits our screens, we log it, then rush out and buy it, even though we know that Kathleen has always had beautiful hair, with or without Pantene. For shampoo, as for art, we are willing to suspend disbelief. "Buying shampoo is about wanting to believe that you can have the glossy hair that you keep seeing on other people," explains Maryann Barone of the Chelsea Partnership advertising agency. "The secret of Pantene's ad is that it's not just bouncy hair floating through the camera. Its technical nature gives you permission to believe."

Bouncy hair, however, is essential. It's the trigger that starts us dreaming. Every shampoo advert features yards of it, night after night after night.

But be warned: you can overdo the tossing tresses. The worst culprit is the hair colorant Harmony. "The girl in the Harmony ad tosses her hair so much she looks like a restive pony," complains Elaine Hunt. "It's hard to believe they weren't taking the mickey when they did it."