Media: Would you swap it for another type of ad?: Martin Rosenbaum finds many people are happy with the present brand of detergent advertising

Sean O'Brien, a Liverpool fireman, has struck a minor blow for sex equality. After 31 years of commercials in which 'ordinary housewives' have extolled the virtues of Daz, Mr O'Brien has just become the first man to do so. Never mind that Danny Baker and the Daz Doorstep Challenge team were actually hoping to find his wife - she was in the bath when they arrived - Mr O'Brien and his impressively white T-shirt are now on our television screens.

In 1962 a Mrs Emmett from Chippenham told the then equivalent of Danny Baker, a rather more staid gentleman, that Daz produced the whitest wash she'd ever seen. Ever since, most Daz ads have been variations on that theme. With few exceptions, advertising for other detergents has been similarly unimaginative, based on trials, testimonials, product demonstrations, performance and price comparisons, and contrived domestic scenes, usually with stereotypical gender roles.

A time traveller from 30 years ago might be baffled by the range now available - bio, non-bio, powders, liquids, concentrates, refills and colour variants - but would find the way they are advertised reassuringly familiar. The products may claim to be new, improved and revolutionary, but no one could say this of the advertising.

'Advertising in this area hasn't really changed that much in 30 or 40 years,' says David Kingsley, who worked on the Procter & Gamble brands Daz and Tide in the Fifties and Sixties. 'Our advertising was derived from successful P&G campaigns in the United States. It gave individual identities to products. Tide was cleanness, Daz was whiteness. There is no reason to think the testimonial and product comparison ideas have lost validity. Advertising thinks it's an innovative business, but it isn't'

Procter & Gamble (maker of Ariel, Bold, Daz and Fairy) and its rival Lever Brothers (Persil, Radion and Surf), which together dominate the market, have invested vast sums in creating and maintaining brand identities. Last year around pounds 80m was spent on advertising to sell detergents worth around pounds 850m. This sector has consistently had one of the highest advertising-to-sales ratios for mass- market products.

The two companies are fighting an expensive battle for market share, but the extent of their advertising also makes it hard for newcomers to enter the market. The duopoly's critics say these costs result in unnecessarily high prices. Last year the companies narrowly escaped a Monopolies and Mergers Commission inquiry.

Persil and Ariel, each with 25- 30 per cent of the market, are promoted through distinct identities. 'Persil is very much about the family,' says John Heatley, account director at J Walter Thompson, which has advertised the brand for decades. 'The 'Persil Mum' has been around almost since the beginning of the brand's life. Most washing in most households is still done by Mum. Men seem to have a problem with washing machines.'

In contrast, Ariel is presented as an stain remover, while Daz is positioned as a source of whiteness, Radion as an odour-destroyer, Fairy as gentle and caring, and Bold and Surf as value-for-money products.

'When we launched our own brand Novon last year, our research showed that housewives were clear about the positioning of different brands,' says Mike Rosen, director of non-food buying for Sainsbury. 'The ads have been good at communicating brand image for years, but if you are spending tens of millions of pounds the sheer weight of money helps.'

The ads may successfully project brand personalities, but people who work on them are accustomed to criticism rather than praise. 'We are used to getting not very good coverage on detergent advertising,' says Annabelle Manwaring, who has worked on Daz for six years at Leo Burnett. 'We've got thick skins.' The ads are widely derided within the marketing world for being formulaic, sexist and boring.

'Most detergent advertising is patronising and treats people as if they were complete idiots,' says Dan Brooke of Chiat Day Mojo, which produced the distinctive 'recycled commercials' - Fifties footage with a new voice-over - last year for the small environmental brand Ecover. 'Advertisers also play on people's insecurities, by inventing problems such as 'the odours you can't smell'. There have to be more effective ways to spend your money, but P&G and Lever Brothers just don't want to take the risk.'

'Recall of P&G advertising is very strong, but a lot of it is very crass,' says Tony Baines, household buying controller for Tesco. And last year Bernard Barnett, editorial director of the advertising trade magazine Campaign, wrote that if all ads were like P&G's, 'the British public would not tolerate the interruption of its television programmes by commercials'.

Sometimes criticisms come from ordinary consumers who discover that advertising does not always correspond to reality. In the past three years the Independent Television Commission has upheld complaints from irate viewers who found, contrary to claims in commercials, that Ariel Ultra did not always remove fatty stains at 40 C, that Bold Ultra could not be purchased for less than pounds 4.50, and that muddy stains were not necessarily eradicated by one wash with Persil Concentrated.

Amanda Bernstein, Surf account director at Foote, Cone & Belding, says: 'It can be soul-destroying working on washing powder. They're the ads people love to hate. When I came into advertising I thought it was my chance to do something creative and different. But it doesn't work. Housewives are practical animals who want to know if the product works.

'So no criticisms please. There's always a good reason for the way things are.'

(Photographs omitted)

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