Kids Spend Less Time Outdoors Than Maximum Security Prisoners, Says This Detergent Ad

The latest in Persil's 'Dirt Is Good' campaign

U.K.-based laundry detergent marketer Persil is lamenting the fact that kids spend less time outdoors than prison inmates do—because less dirt is bad for soap sales. 

The Unilever brand (sold in some countries as Omo) and agency MullenLowe London interviewed inmates at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Indiana, about the value they place on their two hours of yard time.

"It's everything to me," says one. 

Directed by Toby Dye of RSA Films, its beginning is promising, offering a small window into the lives of a population deliberately hidden from public view. Indeed, it humanizes the prisoners—who volunteered to participate—as they describe the mental toll of being locked up inside 22 hours a day. 

In a perplexing—and jarring—twist, the commercial then shifts focus to its real subject—children who, for whatever unspoken reason, spend less time playing in the sun than incarcerated men do.

Faced with that analogy, the prisoners remain good natured, agreeing it's a shame (of course they do, because that's the point).

In a statement accompanying the ad, Dye touted the authentic nature of the filmmaking approach.

"Everything in the film was shot for real with a tiny crew of five, under genuine documentary conditions," he says. "Staying true to the documentary approach, we were open to allowing the unscripted and unplanned-for occurrences of filming real life shape our finished film. I'm very proud that we have made a film that works on so many levels and have powerfully communicated the intended message in an emotionally engaging, non-judgmental way."

To be fair, it is a fresh and memorable take on Persil's long running "Dirt Is Good" campaign, which also featured a robot turning into a real boy … thanks to time spent kicking around in the mud.

But the link between kids and prisoners is too absurd and calculating in its bid for controversy to be convincing. Yes, it's sad that kids don't spend more time outdoors, and a real issue that warrants serious discussion. Suggesting they have it worse than adults forcibly contained by the state, though, is idiotic, and risks feeling exploitative when used to move product. 

Put differently, both situations are unfortunate, but their underlying reasons are worlds apart (or, at the very least, the connection is poorly substantiated here). 

In more constructive news, though, Persil will be partnering with community organizing group Project Dirt to launch outdoor educational events in the U.K., Brazil and Turkey.

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