Michael Lee in Campaign


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Persil's "Dirt is good" has yet to be bettered

The 17-year-old campaign is one of the most influential in advertising history, says VCCP's chief strategy officer 

First published in Campaign. 

This is a campaign that I suspect few British creative directors would have even momentarily considered. Indeed, it's hard to recall a single ad campaign that's run in the UK that has delivered a knockout blow of wondrous brilliance, which is why it might be more of a planner's favourite.

Persil’s “Dirt is good” is very much the slow burner of brand platform ideas, but I do sincerely believe it is one of the most influential in advertising history.

It was arguably the first example of an established, decades-old FMCG brand managing to successfully imbue its product with “purpose”. I’m still not convinced it has been bettered.

Launched in 2005, it broke a category convention that when it came to washing powder brands, there were only two things you could claim – that it was the best at removing stains and/or it was the best at washing well at lower temperatures.

Historically, the casting and scenarios for washing powder ads were dreadfully homogenous, typically oppressive portrayals of perfect Stepford mums beaming at a neat stack of clean clothing.

To this day, I marvel at how on earth David Arkwright managed to persuade his Unilever colleagues to approve the radical shift in brand proposition and endline that is “Dirt is good”. Even the language itself is utterly dissonant and radical, to even mention the word dirt in a category obsessed with clean is quite the paradigm shift.

I suspect a large factor in it being approved is that it’s a work of unmatched dual messaging genius. Here was a piece of language that enabled the client to have their cake and eat it.

First, it opened up a completely new canvas for a washing powder brand – it liberated creatives from perfect mum’s perfect kitchen and perfectly folded piles of clothing into the outdoor world. A world where children really did play outside, stay healthy and, yes, got their clothes dirty in the process.

I would also be extremely impressed if, at the original presentation of this idea, someone said: “If you buy this campaign it will still be going strong 17 years later, enable your brand to be highly active in the experiential space where your competitors are absent, be running in 78 countries and, one day, you’ll be co-sponsoring a global conference with the UN to champion the importance of outdoor play in childhood.” All of which has happened.

But that’s just the top half of the “Dirt is good” idea. The bottom half is the bit where Unilever got to keep the cake, which is the inherent product superiority claim behind this proposition.

The only reason Persil is able to champion dirt is because it’s confident that every dirty item of clothing – a symbol of a healthy and joyful day lived – can be effortlessly washed clean because the product is so damn good. Even without the purpose element, that is an extremely clever fresh take on the category.

As for the creative ads themselves, well, I’d say that BBH's “Robot boy”, a crying robot that turns into a happy child at play, is the best of the initial bunch.

MullenLowe London’s “Free the kids” is also worth a look – a clever, documentary-style campaign featuring prisoners in Indiana to highlight the lack of outdoor play that many children face. It was a campaign that garnered a number of global awards, but it’s telling that the majority of those that won at Cannes related to effectiveness.

I said at the start that I felt it hadn’t been matched since. By this I mean that many brands have attempted a similar task, to retrospectively apply social purpose to decades old FMCG brands that previously had none. Far too many brands have only achieved that goal by sacrificing their ability to champion the more functional virtues of their product.

The simple reason this undesired outcome has happened so often is because it's an "eye of the needle" utter bastard of a challenge, the sort of stuff that makes a planners’ brains explode with the sheer difficulty of the task in hand.

Given the longevity of the idea, 17 years and counting, I suspect the current stewards of the Persil/OMO brand know exactly what a uniquely valuable asset they have in their possession.

Michael Lee is chief strategy officer at VCCP and the chair of APG.