Art & Commerce: Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Packaged goods hold a distinguished place in advertising’s brand pantheon
Mr. Whipple, still squeezing the Charmin after all these years. (He looks great, by the way; decades of residuals must have bought a comfy retirement.) The return of the most irritating and effective spokescharacter in ad history reminded me why packaged goods have never ranked lower on the totem pole of creatively desirable accounts.
Never mind that the fates of global holding companies are tied to packaged-goods behemoths Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Henkel, Kao and such. At a time when “real” brands are considered arbiters of public values and private meanings, packaging goods don’t deserve the dignity of the B-word.
Yet if my experience means anything, this attitude is wrong. I’d argue that packaged goods represent the highest, not the lowest, form of branding. In ancient Greece, the big brand personalities–Zeus, Aphrodite, Apollo–inspired the spinners of myth. But beneath Homer’s notice, the people held equally vital and more ancient beliefs in their unsung household gods.
In the contemporary pantheon of brands, packaged goods remain our household gods. Unlike fashion or cars or vodka, they are too lowly for myth. Still, they inspire attachments more mysterious, lasting and profound than any elicited by a prestige label or identity brand.
In my pantheon of household gods, no brand occupies a higher pedestal than Advil. Actually, Advil is not a god, but a goddess. I take it for relief of menstrual distress, which not only helps explain my deep emotional attachment to it, but makes me a brand manager’s dream: someone who buys the product regularly for decades on end.
Don’t think I miss the irony that this deathless brand preference is for a product that is a complete and utter commodity. I am perfectly aware that Advil does not exist. It is the drug ibuprofen that cures my ills, and every brand contains it in chemically identical form. Once, in fact, my rational self rebelled. As I stood before the pain reliever, I forced myself to buy another brand. Was it just my imagination, or did this substitute not work as well?
Of course it was my imagination; faith in the brand is a much more powerful medicine than a chain of molecules. O, Advil, goddess of my hearth, I’ll never again desert you!
You’ll also find Tide on my household altar. I assumed I used Tide because my mother did; detergent marketers will tell you that most daughters inherit their brand preferences from mom. But on further investigation, I found this wasn’t true: My mother was a loyal advocate of All-Temp-a-Cheer, the ’60s cold-water washing innovation.
Then it all came back to me: For years after I left home, I was an urban dweller without a washing machine of my own. Instead of buying laundry detergent, I paid someone to do my wash. By the time I got a machine, my childhood memories had dimmed, and I was beyond the reach of most media on which detergents to use. I cannot be sure–the origins of these pieties are mysterious even to those who practice them–but I think I chose Tide because I knew it simply as the most famous of all detergent brands. That iconic dayglo bull’s-eye on the box–or rather the ancient tribal memory of it–said “detergent” to me. Can a brand identity be more powerful than that?
When it comes to toothpaste, I did what consumers my age are never supposed to do: I changed brands. My life-long belief in Crest was broken two years ago when my dental hygienist gave me a sample of Colgate Total. She enthusiastically explained it had a secret ingredient that suppressed the build-up of plaque longer.
I don’t know whether this is true. It was a ’50s-style claim a ’90s consumer would ignore. But I didn’t ignore it, because it was uttered by a white-coated professional–the old “recommended by more dentists” ad clichƒ come to life. Add another idol to the pantry.
These stories help explain why packaged goods are despised as fodder for Mr. Whipple. Not one of my magical attachments can be traced to ads that are relevant, creative or even likable. They bypass everything ad people take pride in. If advertising played any role, it was the ads of the old, rejected, saturate-the-airwaves, hit-’em-over-the-head-for-years-on-end school.
But does that make packaged goods any less powerful as brands? However I have chosen my gods, it’s clear that, in comparison to other categories, my devotion is incommensurate with the marketing stimulus to buy the unique benefits they offer versus the meager image they project.
But I am bound to them by magical thinking at its most irrational and pure. That can’t be said of a brand loyalty inspired by anything as fluid as “identity.” Remember that the next time you sneer at Mr. Whipple.