A camera pans down onto a set of blockhouses and high barbed wire fences. It could be dusk. It could be dawn. It’s definitely bleak. The words ‘Free the Kids’ fill the screen. This, we are informed, is Wabash Maximum Security Prison in Indiana.
An emotive string score begins to weave its sad business with our hearts. Prisoners and guards alike start to give testimony on the importance of ‘yard time’ – that precious part of their day spent out in the open, working-out and socialising.
I was in a cinema when I saw it. This, I thought, will be an infomercial for Amnesty International. Or a trailer for hard-hitting Sundance awards fodder.
The point begins to emerge that prisoners spend more time outdoors than today’s children – a shocking fact in anyone’s book. ‘Free the Kids’ returns again, its typeface worthy and weighty. This is followed by OMO/Persil's logo, and the hashtag #dirtisgood.
Doing well by doing good
This feels like a bit of a misfire from Unilever’s – usually so on-point – benevolent social purposing. Comparing prisoners to children feels a little glib. And having prisoners say how sorry they are for kids somehow strikes a rather jarring note.
‘Dirt is Good’ is a truly great brand philosophy for the fabric-cleansing giants. Its conception was perfect: it had a light-hearted sense of purpose and mission that positioned the brand as a fighter for fun and childhood and all things that you wouldn’t expect from the ‘cleanshirts’.
They took the incontestable logic that the dirtier kids’ clothes get, the more washing powder needs buying, and married it with a positive societal need. This is what’s called doing well by doing good.
Something’s gone wrong with this ad though. With one fell swoop the brand is more Cell Block C than Class 4C.
You can picture the situation: a planner – rightly incensed by the fact that kids spend less time outside than prisoners do – couldn’t see the bigger picture, however ill-suited it was to the product being sold.
The simple truth is that, by approaching a subject as dark and contentious as prison, they have strayed far from their remit as purveyors of fabric cleanser.
In the ad’s favour, it is non-judgemental. None of these convicts are criticised for the life choices that they’ve made, and all are presented with pathos. But perhaps the agency, MullenLowe, could have anticipated an different reaction. When a consumer sees a prisoner doling out wisdom (“Learn to be a kid”, says one), who’s to say they won’t see advice coming from their mouths as being thick with a sad irony?
Focusing on the positive
In no way am I saying that brands should steer clear of really big societal issues. Persil shouldn’t be whitewashing (ahem) anything, but approaching issues from a positive angle is always going to be more effective for a brand.
Take Coca-Cola’s ‘5by20’ – an archetypal ‘doing well by doing good’ initiative. By 2020 the sugary behemoth aims to have empowered – mainly through economic and entrepreneurial education – a whopping five million women in its supply chain.
Inevitably there’s going to be a lot of darkness in the lives of some of these women, working, as Coca-Cola does, in some of the poorest countries in the world. There’s exploitation, abuse, subjugation, ignorance and desperation. But Coca-Cola manages to tell positive stories of empowerment. Of hope.
OMO/Persil need to avoid losing sight of positivity. ‘Dirt is Good’ is a positive message; it signalled the brand becoming one of the first on Unilever’s roster to adopt a social purpose. What’s more, they actually are making great strides to help find a solution.
The good news
The brand is working with visionary educationalist Sir Ken Robinson in his first ever brand partnership. As Chair of the Dirt is Good Child Development Advisory Board he’s going to lobby government, raise awareness and ‘investigate the best ways to help children play, explore and get dirty every day so they can learn and develop to their full potential’.
Sounds great right? So why aren’t they shouting about it? We already know that Ken Robinson can generate pretty neat viral figures on his own. His RSA Animate lecture on ‘Changing Education Paradigms’ racked up a pretty solid 13 million views alone. Not bad for a Youtube video boasting neither cats nor Kanye.
Persil will not regard this piece of content as a misstep. Tweets have been tweeted. Hashtags have been hashed. Awareness has been raised.
But in terms of endorsing the other – more serious – part of the campaign, it does little to raise credibility.
The earnest help and expertise being offered by Ken Robinson and others shouldn’t be forgotten as a sideline – it mustn’t act as a veneer of credibility tacked onto a shiny ad campaign.
Dirt may be good. But let’s not play dirty.
Ferdie Simon is a writer at The Clearing