Apply Liberally: Consumers Use Products as They See Fit


The many lives of baking soda

Perhaps no brand has embraced off-label uses like Arm & Hammer baking soda. Shortly after its introduction in 1846, reports poured in that it worked as more than just a leavening agent, says Steve Bolkan, R&D director at Church & Dwight, which owns the brand.

Over the next century "entrepreneurial housewives" subjected virtually every surface of their home and families to suspected benefits of the product, from cleaning laundry and floors to brushing teeth and dusting armpits as a deodorant, Bolkan says. Eventually the company launched lines including Arm & Hammer laundry detergent (1970), toothpaste (1988), deodorant (1994) and cat litter (1998).

Ironically, Church & Dwight discourages off-label uses for products besides baking soda. So while online forums often recommend, say, using the cat litter to soak up oil from garages and driveways, the company discourages it.

"With personal-care products the label is highly regulated and you just don't want people to misuse it," says Bolkan. "We live in a very litigious society and if you don't really conduct quality R&D tests for those applications, it's just very dangerous from a legal standpoint."

That, and possible sanctions from the Food and Drug Administration are why medications like Prep H are consistent about discouraging uses beyond what they prescribe.

Other brands make a case that doing nothing about alternative uses is the best way to go. Canada Dry Club Soda, for example -- which, along with other club sodas, is lauded by consumers as a spot remover for clothes and carpets -- says it's just good business.

A representative for the brand, which is part of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, says in a statement that "right now, consumer word of mouth is delivering the cleaning message for us, which is a marketer's dream come true."

Ditto for Vaseline, a Unilever product. In response to questions about off-label use (such as helping surfers slip into wet suits), brand manager Elizabeth Tomasulo stated in an e-mail that it doesn't "proactively encourage off-label use," but is delighted "that consumers have found all kinds of ways to use Vaseline to solve their daily problems."

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