While clothes were getting easier to clean
, Americans were starting to own more of them. Today, journalist Elizabeth Cline reports in Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, the average U.S. consumer buys 68 pieces of clothing a year—more than one purchase a week—much of it cheaply made. Launder those items with Tide, and they take on a uniform smell and feel that consumers have come to associate with quality. “It doesn’t matter where the clothes come from, if you wash them with Tide, they do have almost this prestige wash to them,” says Maru Kopelowicz, a global creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, which researches consumer attitudes toward Tide as the brand’s lead advertising firm.
Procter & Gamble spends heavily on research and development to continually refine the sensory by-products of doing the laundry with its leading detergent. Tide’s original scent was “citruslike,” in the words of Sundar Raman, the marketing director of Procter & Gamble’s North American fabric-care division, but has evolved into a “citrus, floral, and fruity experience” with hints of lemon, orange, roses, lily, and apple. When combined in a complex perfume, these notes help cover up the odors of the cleaning agents that would otherwise waft out during the wash cycle. But P&G also chose each scent to do a specific job. The smell of citrus, for instance, has been shown to correlate strongly with perceptions of cleanliness. “That natural, fresh-and-clean smell is stimulating and creates an instantaneous mood of being happy,” says Craig Warren, a former researcher for the firm International Flavors & Fragrances who, until the late nineties, did work with P&G. Floral scents, for their part, have been known to evoke strong feelings of maternal love and kinship. (Home visits by Saatchi researchers have found that very ardent Tide fans sometimes carry bottles as if cradling a baby.) The goal of all these efforts is to turn clothes-washing into more than a to-do; it’s being a good parent, a good person. It’s a message that may also explain why among some lower-income shoppers, according a 2012 newsletter by branding agency Daymon Worldwide, “being able to afford Tide laundry detergent is seen as a sign of success.”