Persil Washing Powder

A commercial from 1988 for Persil Washing Powder

Persil Power is a laundry detergent product developed and sold in the mid-1990s by Unilever.

In the early 1990s, Unilever’s Persil detergent had been falling behind its competitors in sales. As independent tests were showing the major brands to have relatively similar performance in removing stains, Unilever decided that they needed a product with an edge in stain removal. Persil’s main competitor, Ariel, had recently introduced Ariel Ultra, the first of the “Super Compacts” – washing powders equipped with chemical catalysts which (according to the advertising) cleaned better than ever, with less powder. With Ariel Ultra taking the detergent market by storm, and their own Persil Micro lagging far behind, Unilever needed but to surpass it with a new super-compact Persil line. Thus, Persil Power was conceived.

After much toil, Unilever’s research teams found a manganese(IV)-based catalyst that sped up the decomposition of sodium perborate and sodium percarbonate which act as bleaches in the washing process, increasing the cleaning performance noticeably over its competitors and allowing use of lower temperatures. [1] Unilever decided that the catalysing agents would be an ideal addition to the product, but had worries over such a major alteration to the formula of one of their main products (a high profile example of this being New Coke, with a more direct example being in the late 1980s when one of Persil’s competitors, Daz, introduced a new formula that also increased cleaning performance, but caused allergic reactions in a small but noticeable percentage of the population). To this end they decided to split the catalyst agent (together with some fabric softening agents) into a new product, Persil Power. This could be added to normal Persil in varying amounts depending on how tough the stains were. Some believe that, had Power been successful, Unilever would have created a unified version of Persil with the catalysing agents. Power was launched with a large publicity campaign, but a number of problems soon became apparent.

First of all were complaints that it wasn’t obvious enough that Power was an add-on to Persil and not a replacement for it. Most people were able to tell this difference however, and this ended up being a minor issue. Second of all was that despite the large publicity campaign, the sales of Persil and Power did not significantly increase, widely believed to be because Persil by itself was capable of dealing with most stains. The third – and most serious – problem was that after a few washes with Power, clothes first started to lose their colour definition and then their structural integrity, ripping easily under any significant stress.[citation needed] Effectively, Power was having the same effects as adding bleach to the clothes. Further testing determined that while the effects weren’t hugely apparent on new clothes (which Unilever had performed most of Power’s testing with) they could become very quickly apparent on older clothes. The effects were largely determined to be due to Power being a little too powerful in the recommended quantities, and a chemical reaction (which Unilever had not detected) occurring between the catalyst agents and dyes used commonly in clothes.

Considering the embarrassment the episode had caused Unilever and the prohibitive cost of redesigning the product, they decided to issue a product recall and then simply abandon the brand. A number of lawsuits were issued against Unilever by retail chains and consumers, but the vast majority of them were settled outside of court. Afterwards, Persil were able to refine their main product’s formula enough to produce comparable cleaning performance without needing a catalyst. This led to a discreet relaunch of the super-compact format as “Persil Performance”.

Info gleaned from Wikipedia

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