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Season Five.
"All Things Being Equal: The Fascinating World of Parity Products"

Airs Saturday April 16th and Thursday April 21st, 2011.

This week, the Age of Persuasion features an encore look at Parity Products. It's that strange category where each brand is identical to the other, with nothing unique separating them. Yet, some of the biggest advertisers are parity products, like toothpastes, shampoos, beer and dish soaps. We'll track the history of parity advertising, talk about pioneer Claude Hopkins' ingenious "pre-emptive claim" strategy, and we'll examine the brilliant ways one brand shines a little brighter than the other ... all things being equal.

Listen to this episode as streaming audio (runs 26:30)

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All of the TV commercials and print elements we referred to in the episode, as well as some bonus materials, are below. Enjoy.

A "parity product" is an odd, yet huge, category in marketing. The definition of "parity" is "the state or condition of being equal."

Most of the products in your bathroom or kitchen fall into this category. Toothpastes, dish soaps, shampoos, etc. Each of these products are essentially the same as the other, all offering the an identical benefit. A commodity, in other words.

The only thing that separates one brand from another is the advertising. Yet, some ingenious marketing is created in this category, and some brands shine brighter than others.

The pioneer advertising man in this category was Claude Hopkins:


Like so many early ad giants, he was a preacher's son. As a young man, he became a door-to-door salesman, and learned how to "get from the threshold into the parlour."

Hopkins had an interesting philosophy when it came to parity products. First, he believed smart advertisers accepted human desires and never tried to change them.

Next, he believed in "reason why" advertising. That meant always giving customers a "reason why" they should buy the brand. In the early 20th century, this was new thinking. Prior to that, all ads just relayed news or price.

The third spoke of Hopkins' parity strategy was the most important. Because all parity products offer the identical benefit, he sought to establish a "pre-emptive claim."

For example, in the toothpaste category, all products offered cleaner teeth. But for Pepsodent, Hopkins delved into research, and discovered that a dingy film collects on teeth. That goo, which we now know as plaque, was news back in the 1920s. So Hopkins wrote a campaign that told the public that Pepsodent removes that film from your teeth:

1929 pepsodent print ad.jpg>

By promising that Pepsodent could remove "film" from teeth, he had found a pre-emptive claim. A "hook" slightly outside the main benefit. By doing that, competitors were trumped because they were all talking about cleaner teeth, a generic benefit. Hopkins created a unique "reason why" people should buy Pepsodent.

It was the birth of a brand new type of advertising, that resound to this day.

Hopkins worked his magic on many products. For Schlitz Beer, he didn't talk about how the beer was made, he said it was "The beer that made Milwaukee famous:

For van Camps Pork and Beans, he pre-empted the competition by being the first to say the beans were baked for hours at 245 degrees:

Van Camp beans print ad.jpg

For Goodyear Tires, Hopkins didn't talk about the rubber, he pre-empted competitors by saying they were "all weather tires" - a claim still in use 100 years later:

Goodyear all-weather.jpg

For Quaker Wheat Berries cereal, Hopkins changed the name to Puffed Wheat, and sold it as "being shot from guns" - a process that "puffed" the grains to eight times their normal size:

When Claude Hopkins retired a wealthy man in 1923, he wrote a book that all serious marketers should read. It was called "Scientific Advertising" and it's still available:

Scientific Advertising cover.jpg

In the 1950s, Crest Toothpaste took a page from that book, and eclipsed Pepsodent by stating that Crest prevented cavities. It was a powerful claim. And it didn't hurt that Crest hired Mrs. Nancy Reagan to be a spokesperson:

Then, Crest developed another pre-emptive claim with the slogan, "Look Ma, no cavities!" It would be a campaign Crest would stick with for over 20 years:

Creating great advertising in the parity category is very difficult. The products themselves aren't particularly exciting, and the benefits of a cleaner bathroom aren't titillating. But Toronto advertising agency Zig did a fantastic TV commercial for Vim, and it swept the awards shows all around the world:

A relatively new brand of "green" soaps have hit the shelves, called Method. They launched a strange ad that talked about how regular cleansers leave toxic chemicals behind in your shower, that then "leer" at you:

Gain detergent has also been running terrific ads over the last few years. This is one of my favourites:

The Vim and Gain ads above show how creativity can solve even the toughest advertising challenge.

For a parity category, you can stand out with big ideas - even with all things being equal.