NYTimes: Laundry Soaps Try a Hint of Horror and Some Tough-Guy Talk

The category is laundry products, household staples like detergents, bleaches and fabric softeners. People do not think about them much, unlike higher-interest categories like cars or any gadget from Apple beginning with “i.”

No laundry product marketer has introduced an iDetergent — not yet, anyway. Meantime, the largest companies in the category are seeking more attention among shoppers with campaigns that are offbeat and even odd.

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Reckitt Benckiser, for its Woolite brand of liquid detergent, is introducing ads with a spooky tone reminiscent of a Rob Zombie horror movie. That is no coincidence: the commercial that is the centerpiece of the campaign, making its debut on Thursday on the brand’s Facebook page, was directed by Mr. Zombie.

“Some detergents torture your clothes,” asserts the campaign, which depicts apparel being threatened by ominous devices out of a horrible Halloween. “Save them,” the ads declare, with Woolite, as evidenced by the campaign’s theme, “Long live your wardrobe.”

And Procter & Gamble is featuring the actor and martial artist Chuck Norris in a campaign for its Era liquid detergent. Era is “Chuck Norris approved,” according to the cheeky campaign, which includes commercials on television and YouTube, online advertising and social media like Facebook and Twitter.

The Era campaign borrows from jokes that began appearing online in 2005, known as “Chuck Norris facts,” in the form of boldly exaggerated statements about Mr. Norris’s prowess as a fighter, a man’s man and a human being.

The premise of the humorous Era campaign is that Era is the Chuck Norris of detergents, battling — and beating — stains the same way he vanquishes bad guys. The theme of the campaign, “A lot of fight for a little dough,” expresses that thought as well as that Era is a value brand — priced lower than Procter’s flagship detergent, Tide, but higher than store brands.

“We’ve repositioned Woolite as more of a daily-use detergent for all the fabrics that require special care, and we’ve been trying to communicate this to consumers over time,” said Jiri Kulik, general manager for United States household marketing at the Reckitt Benckiser North American headquarters in Parsippany, N.J.

“But we’ve always had trouble breaking through with the message,” he added, “because it’s very difficult to change a habit.”

After “some of the consumers in our focus groups described what their clothes go through with laundry detergent like a ‘torture,’ we got this crazy idea of the washing machine like a torture chamber for your clothes,” Mr. Kulik said, “and then we describe Woolite as the savior.”

Even so, after the Woolite agency — Euro RSCG Worldwide in New York, part of Havas — presented a campaign based on that concept, “when we saw the first storyboard we almost flipped from our chairs,” he added, laughing. “Eventually, with testing, we got more and more comfortable with it.”

Still, there are two versions of the commercial: a darker one for Facebook and movie theaters, and a milder one for television.

“I’m not really sure which version is which,” Mr. Zombie said. “It’s not like it’s scary.”

Mr. Zombie said he and his cinematographer, Brandon Trost, made the spot “more like a Tim Burton” film than something truly horrifying.

For example, the main character, who is shown tormenting the clothes not washed in Woolite, “is like Uncle Fester,” Mr. Zombie said, referring to the character from “The Addams Family,” and not “like some child killer out in the woods.”

Perhaps the only thing stranger than talking about death in reference to detergent ads is talking about Mr. Norris. He does not appear in person in the Era campaign; rather, his likeness is seen on a tongue-in-cheek seal in the ads and on bottles.

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