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When plastic flowers ruled the earth

DO YOU remember the plastic daffodils? If you do, you were a sentient being 35 years ago. If you collected them, you were probably also a housewife and were thus part of one of the most successful soap powder promotions ever run. You were, by the way, a Persil user.

Len Hardy was chairman of Lever Brothers during the 1960s and 1970s, and was intimately involved in the endless soap powder wars between Lever and Procter & Gamble. He has written a book called Ten Golden Rules: Business Management Strategy (Windrush Books, pounds 15.99), which does not mention daffodils. But when bullied last week, he was prepared to reminisce about the great days of plastic flora.

Lever had millions of daffodils and tulips made in the Far East, and told shopkeepers to give one away with each pack of Persil. "Some people laughed at us," Mr Hardy says. "But many others lived in the middle of industrial cities, and would hardly ever see flowers. The promotion also had the great attraction that customers would come back time and again to collect a bunch."

Nowadays, he says, supermarkets would refuse to fiddle around with plastic flowers - but soap-powder marketing has otherwise changed remarkably little. "You had to get to the woman in Wigan," he says. "We'd always tell our advertising people not to produce ads that pleased their mates from college." That is why soap promotions were always straightforward - whether they involved free rail tickets or Persil girls knocking on doors and giving prizes to people who had a packet tucked away. It is also why telly ads featuring Leslie Crowther in a supermarket lasted so long. I knew there must be a reason.

Remarkably for a marketing man, Mr Hardy insists that clever selling is not enough - he has great faith in the housewife's ability to spot whether a soap powder really is better. And yes, it still is a housewife - Lever's research continues to show that very few men have ever bought the family Persil.

A FEW years ago, the papers carried a picture of an angry demonstration in Washington DC - not a million black men, but a few dozen white men in suits: they were protesting against high government spending. I was gobsmacked. It was a truth universally acknowledged that you demonstrated in Britain to make the government spend more, not less.

This gap between the American and British mentalities is yawning ever wider. If you want proof, rush to your newsagent and buy a copy of the Nashville Business Journal. This has a section called "Debtwatch", which allows anxious Country and Western singers to keep up to date on the government's spending folly. My latest information is a little out-of-date, but things didn't look good in early September. The public debt was $4,955,603,000,000 on 6 September, which was some $285,497,000,000 more than a year before. To the barricades, and God help America!

Hair apparent

BUT at least America continues to civilise the known world. St Petersburg now has its own hair transplant clinic, thanks to the US company Neva- Hudson. According to the St Petersburg Times, it will cost $100,000 (pounds 64,000) and will have two American-trained local doctors. Just what Russia needs most, I should say.

NEXT May, Rupert Murdoch will be worrying about frozen assets in his television business. Bill Gates is going to have problems with the media. And Tony Blair will win the next election. I know all this because I have been reading Financial Astrology, a newsletter published in Hong Kong that tells you how to make a lot of money.

By staring at the star charts, the newsletter's editors have come up with some quite specific predictions. A significant entertainment venture will be set up in China or Thailand next month. The US stock market is going to fall sharply in December, but the Shanghai's index is on its way up, and if you want a nice strong currency, try the Irish punt.

Financial Astrology says the forecasts made in its last issue were 82.5 per cent correct, and who am I to doubt it? But if you want to run a little test, see who wins the Quebec separation vote. The stars say the Quebeckers will say bye-bye to Canada - if they do, it might just be worth piling into the Shanghai market or picking up some punts.

Lack of purchase

THE BBC's procurement department - or the Centre of Purchasing Excellence as it describes itself - has sent a wonderfully elaborate brochure round to other bits of the corporation. It has all the trimmings of modern-day management speak, including a section headed "policy". The policy has eight points, telling the readers what the department does. These include "development of best procurement practice", "purchasing performance reviews" and "supplier profiling". Nowhere, however, does it say that it buys things. Maybe it doesn't. Bizarre.

TSK - I hear some of the people at the publisher Euromoney were upset that I reported a kettle confiscated because it used too much electricity. Well I am delighted to show my even-handedness by pointing out that Euromoney has been selected by Forbes magazine as one of the 100 best small companies in the world. Hurrah - I am absolutely certain the accolade is well deserved.