The Great Preen Con

In 1985 I formulated the first Preen Trigger:

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The brief I was given was that I had to mimic the performance of the legendary Preen aerosol – the great unstainer.

This was not easy, as the aerosol contained trichloroethane – dry cleaning solvent – with astonishingly good stain dissolving properties. I couldn’t use this product in the trigger, because it was too volatile, and also the plastic components wouldn’t have survived.

So I eventually came up with a formula that used a paraffinic solvent that worked better than the aerosol on some things (oils and greases) and not so well on others (inks and dyes).

There wasn’t any real competition – there was a product called Charge (an S.C.Johnson product) that was…wait for it….water based.

How we laughed at Charge! What type of bozos would think that they could get away with making a water-based prewash? In my stain tests, Preen killed it in every area except one – clay (not unexpected as the inorganic nature of clay makes it more susceptible to a water based approach).

But then I left the company, and Preen was in someone else’s hands.

And then some years later, a Brent Smyth in marketing had an idea – if they switched to a water based formula they could make more money. So they went to the guys in the lab, and the conversation probably went like this:

Marketing Guy: can we make Preen water-based?

Lab Guy: Are you kidding? It won’t work nearly as well.

Marketing Guy: that’s okay – we’ll change the packaging, and no one will notice.

So now, Preen looks like this

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the selection of the bright pink colour no doubt was the result of focus group marketing, which would associate it with cleaning power.

This change, which happened in 2004, was probably marketed as an improvement to the formula, along with an increase in price. But all they are doing is attempting to conceal from you the fact that this is a cheaper product. If they sold the product more cheaply, it may alert you to this fact, so they go the other way and increase the price, thus keeping you into believing it is a superior product.

Well guess what Brent – people have noticed. Whenever people mention Preen to me, the word they most associate it with is “useless.”

But it gets worse than this. There is now not one Preen trigger product but three – Original, Oxy Action, and Ultra-Degreaser. So they now want you to buy three products instead of one. You are being conned.

You see, there is no reason that the ingredients in all these three products cannot be combined into one formula.

The reason they do this is that this way you have to buy three times as many products. So you are being doubly conned – not only are you paying more for a cheaper product, but you are now forced to buy three of them.

The result of Preen going water-based, is that now every man and his dog is making a laundry prewash – Sard, Orange Power, White King, and several others, including Coles and Woolworths.

For my next appearance on Today Tonight, I’m going to carry out a comprehensive tests of all of these, as well as chucking in a few other products that will surprise you.

Windex Loses Confidence in Itself

There are many products that we recognise immediately – when we think of fly sprays we think of Mortein. When we think of furniture polishes it’s Mr Sheen.

And when we think of window cleaners it’s Windex. At least it used to be – now it’s Mr Muscle:

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Now, as it happens, Mr Muscle and Windex are both SC Johnson products, and have been for years. Most people probably weren’t aware of this, but there are a lot of products that are made by the same company – Mortein and Pea-BeU, Dynamo and Cold Power, and so on.

The reason that this information is hidden in the fine print is that they want to conceal from consumers the truly limited range of choices that there are – that when you are choosing between OMO and Surf all the money is still going back to Unilever, and the choice between the two is all about what marketing claims will capture your interest.

It is therefore odd, to say the least, to see two brands on the same packaging. It gets across the idea that the Windex name itself doesn’t carry enough clout, and it needs the Mr Muscle branding to convince people to buy it – you know, as though someone walks into the supermarket looking for a window cleaner and sees Windex and says “Windex – never heard of it. Oh wait – it’s a Mr muscle product. It must be good.”

If this scenario strikes you as odd I would agree with you. I suspect what’s happened here is that this is a decision that has been made overseas (perhaps due to falling Windex sales) as is beginning to happen more these days. Overseas, Mr Muscle is a bigger brand than it is here. The main reason is that Reckitts Benckiser don’t have anywhere near as great a presence in the US as they do here and in the UK.

Consequently, in Australia, Windex is far more known than Mr Muscle. So I think it’s a marketing mistake that will hurt their sales. The other reason I think this is that Mr Muscle is generally associated in most people’s minds with heavy duty cleaning – ovens and so on, and they might not want to put heavy duty cleaning chemicals onto glass.

Part of this perception may be the idea that the formula of Windex has changed, and it now contains these harsh chemicals.

So I think that SC Johnson have made a mistake here, and a very odd one at that.

Number 1 Mould Remover?

Let’s do an exercise in how products are marketed, which ultimately is what determines whether you buy them or not.

Tonight there was an ad on TV for Exit Mould, which said it was the “number 1 mould remover“in Australia.

No 1? What does that mean? Does that mean it’s the best mould remover, in the same way that the best tennis player in the world has a no 1 ranking?

Well, you’d be forgiven for thinking that, and I’m sure that’s what the people at Reckitts want you to think. Unfortunately, of course that’s not the case, as all Exit Mould is, is bleach with fragrance and a bit of detergent added. You see, when it comes to bleach, bleach is bleach is bleach. And Exit Mould won’t work any better than White King.

But no – it actually means no. 1 as in “most popular.” In other words, if you have a close look at the label on the product in the ad, it says “Number 1 Selling.”

So it’s number 1 in the same sense that a record is number 1 – and that’s it. Does it work? Yes, it does, but much cheaper bleaches work just as well.

So have your skeptic hat on when you watch ads and listen very carefully to what is said.

Suds and Fizzing

We associate suds with cleaning. This also extends to fizzing.

When you add Harpic toilet cleaner to the water in your bowl, we think it it working because it is fizzing.

Actually, it fizzes because the bisulphate is reacting with the carbonates – it is fizz for fizzes sake – nothing to do with cleaning.

The same is true of the popular home recipe of adding bicarb to vinegar. All it is, is fizzzing for the sake of fizzing.

In fact the bicarb and vinegar are neutralising each other. Here’s the reaction:

CH3COOH + NaHCO3 = NaCH3COO + CO2 + H2O

The gas that’s coming off is carbon dioxide, and has no cleaing power whatever.

Hair shampoos have foaming agents added to them, which is necessary as the (amphoteric) surfactants that make up many hair shampoos are low foaming, and may create the impression of poor cleaning if they didn’t foam.

Yet another case of “perception is reality” in the marketing of household products.

Chemistry vs Politics

The choice of chemicals that go into products that we buy off the shelves is not just determined by their performance.

There are several other factors in play – mostly marketing, but sometimes politics.

An excellent case in point is the insecticide Sevin. This was the first synthetic insecticide made that was lethal to insects without the undesirable properties of other synthetic insecticides such as organochlorines and organophosphates. That is. although it is toxic to insects, it is detoxified and eliminated rapidly in vertebrates and it is neither concentrated in fat nor secreted in the milk.

Before this came along the only insecticides with these properties were the synthetic pyrethroids, which are ultimately derivatives of naturally occurring pyrethrum.  It is for these properties that the pyrethroids dominate the domestic insecticide market, and are included in every can of fly spray you buy off the shelf.

So why have you never heard of Sevin?  The reason is purely political.  Sevin, despite its desirable properties, has an unfortunate legacy.  It was the insecticide being manufactured at the Union Carbide plant that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people in the worst industrial accident of all time – the Bhopal disaster.

In that particular case, the Sevin was not the chemical that killed people – it was one of the intermediates: methyl isocyanate.  Now, while methyl isocyanate is a deadly chemical, it is no more deadly than many other industrial chemicals in manufacturing plants around the world.  It only caused this great loss of life due to the appalling safety management of Union Carbide.

However, in the public eye, they now associate it with the Bhopal disaster, and for that reason, this extremely useful and safe chemical is essentially lost to us.

it’s a simple case of a marketing principle: perception is reality.  If the public perceives something to be true, then effectively it is true, despite what the facts and in this case science a very.

It’s exactly the same reason why after the Three Mile Island disaster, the Americans immediately stopped building nuclear power stations.  You of course know of the Three Mile Island disaster don’t you – it’s the only grand disaster in history with a casualty count of zero.