How the Febreze marketing campaign reduced disease in Ghana

Marketers are masters of habit creation. Teeth brushing, skin moisturizing, water purifying, air humidifying, fabric softening – at some point in history these all were conscious chores, not unconscious habits. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported on Val Curtis, the director of Hygiene Center at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who turned to three global conglomerates – Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever – to help establish hand-washing habits in developing countries that would prevent deadly diseases caused by dirty hands (ie. diarrhea).

The model for the public health campaign was the marketing strategy for the odor spray Febreze (caution – the Febreze site has a peppy theme song). When Procter and Gamble first released Febreze in 1996, it was marketed as an odor-fighting product for piles of dirty or smoky clothes. Febreze flopped.

One of the biggest problems, P.& G.s researchers discovered, was that bad smells simply didn’t happen often enough in consumers’ lives. Interviews showed that consumers liked Febreze when they used it, but that many customers simply forgot that it was in the house…The researchers at P.& G. realized that (academic findings on habit formation) had enormous implications for selling Febreze. Because bad smells occurred too infrequently for a Febreze habit to form, marketers started looking for more regular cues on which they could capitalize.

The perfect cue, they eventually realized, was the act of cleaning a room, something studies showed their target audience did almost daily. P.& G. produced commercials showing women spraying Febreze on a perfectly made bed and spritzing freshly laundered clothing. The product’s imagery was revamped to incorporate open windows and gusts of fresh wind — an airing that is part of the physical and emotional cleaning ritual…In a sense, a product originally intended for use on piles of smelly, dirty clothes was eclipsed by its exact opposite — a product used when women confronted a clean and tidy living room. And the more women sprayed, the more automatic the behavior became.

The Febreze transformation turned out to have lessons for Ghana. Some 50 percent of the public routinely washed their hands with water after using a restroom or before a meal, and where markets sold cheap bars of soap, but only 4 percent of Ghanaians washed with soap after using the restroom. Lots of talking about germs wasn’t changing behavior, so Curtis turned to Unilever.

Studies…revealed an interesting paradox: Ghanaians used soap when they felt that their hands were dirty — after cooking with grease, for example, or after traveling into the city. This hand-washing habit, studies showed, was prompted by feelings of disgust. And surveys also showed that parents felt deep concerns about exposing their children to anything disgusting.

So the trick, Dr. Curtis and her colleagues realized, was to create a habit wherein people felt a sense of disgust that was cued by the toilet. That queasiness, in turn, could become a cue for soap. A sense of bathroom disgust may seem natural, but in many places toilets are a symbol of cleanliness because they replaced pit latrines. So Dr. Curtis’s group had to create commercials that taught viewers to feel a habitual sense of unseemliness surrounding toilet use.

Their solution was ads showing mothers and children walking out of bathrooms with a glowing purple pigment on their hands that contaminated everything they touched. The commercials, which began running in 2003, didn’t really sell soap use. Rather, they sold disgust. Soap was almost an afterthought — in one 55-second television commercial, actual soapy hand washing was shown only for 4 seconds. But the message was clear: The toilet cues worries of contamination, and that disgust, in turn, cues soap.

By 2007, soap use had jumped 13 percent after using a restroom and 41 percent before eating a meal.


7 Responses to “How the Febreze marketing campaign reduced disease in Ghana”

  1. MattJ Says:

    Soap use is up, but is diarrhea down? That was the original point. It should be possible to measure that. That would make it possible to know what real effect the ad campaign had.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Febreze makes me sick and makes my throat close up. I feel it is polluting the air and killing people. It’s ashame they are trying to do this to third world countries too. What’s wrong with using fresh air and not polluting it with Febreze!

  3. Jojo Says:

    Yes, Anonymous, people should stop using cleaning products because they make *your* throat close up. They don’t make *my* throat close up, so I demand you start using them!

    In any case, the article had nothing at all to do with using Febreze in Africa, just the same marketing techniques. I’m sorry that trying to read apparently tries to make your eyes close up. We should stop printing words.

  4. joey m Says:

    this was not helpful

  5. me Says:

    ur all wrong!! febreeze dosnt make your throat close up!!! dumbos

  6. Dodie Says:

    I agree with Anonymous. Febreze makes me disoriented and makes me have seizures. Just because it doesn’t do that to everyone is no indication that it isn’t bad for people. Some people may be getting sick from it and not even know it.

  7. Chrisanthos Vlasiadis Says:

    I agree with Anonymous, Febreze is DISGUSTING, POLLUTING, and ought to be illegal !! I agree 100 % bad enough we’re polluting our countries, we have to pollute 3rd world countries too ? what’s wrong with yall ????

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