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Unilever

What is it?

A device to replace those rows of levers in British Rail switching boxes with a single control.

They replaced those years ago.

All right. All right. It's an Anglo-Dutch consumer products group that makes everything from toothpaste to laundry soap.

Why is it in the news?

It will release its half-year results on Friday. But the real interest is in its plans to move forward after a series of public disasters.

Disasters?

First there was the detergent that ate your clothes.

Sounds like a bad science fiction movie.

It was. A bunch of Unilever boffins came up with a formula - sold briefly last year as Persil Power - that would get clothes cleaner. Unfortunately it also reacted with certain dyes and damaged the fabrics.

Not much of a plot.

No, but a heck of an ending. The company wrote down pounds 57m after withdrawing the product and compensating customers. It also saw its market share collapse from a tad under 30 per cent to a fraction over 20 per cent.

Was there a sequel?

Was there a sequel to Alien or Star Wars? Next they ran into trouble over their washing-up liquid, also called Persil.

Persil II: The nightmare continues.

Unilever's arch rival, Procter & Gamble, complained about ads claiming Persil was the best at cutting grease and showing a pack of the liquid on top of the tallest of three stacks of plates.

All soap companies do ads like that.

But this time the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that Unilever couldn't back up its claims. Cut to a pleasant all-American suburb in Tupelo.

Where's Tupelo?

Mississippi. It's one of the strongholds of the American Family Association, a Christian lobby group with 1 million members that called for a boycott of Unilever because it sponsored television programmes with sex, violence and profanity.

Is there no good news?

Last month it was decided that the company's frozen-food subsidiary, Birds Eye Wall's, would not be prosecuted on charges of misleading the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

That's the best publicity it's had?

It also scored points for its fishing policy. In February it joined the World Wide Fund for Nature in creating a Marine Stewardship Council that would accredit all catches sold to the company by 2005. Two months later it announced it was phasing out the use of fish oil from non-sustainable fishing.

So the Greens like it.

Let's not go overboard. This is a soap company.

Anything else going on?

Nothing much. A bit of takeover activity, a corporate restructuring, a financial restructuring and a new management structure.

Why all the turmoil?

Partly because the company is expanding into developing markets in an effort to raise its rate of growth. Partly because the old structures, which split control between London and Rotterdam, wasn't working.

Will the latest changes make a difference?

Find out on Friday.

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