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The Clear New Choice of Consumers? : Products: Colorless merchandise--colas, detergents, you name it--is becoming a phenomenon. Advertising experts call it just that.

April 08, 1993|LEWIS BEALE LEWIS BEALE..BD: SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a clear thing.

And it's on your supermarket shelves: clear colas, clear deodorants, clear detergents.

They're beckoning you with a promise that they taste better, clean better, make you look better and are environmentally benign to boot.

Or are clear products really the white chocolate of the '90s, a study in cognitive dissonance--all being pushed as the good guys when, in fact, they're the same product in see-through clothing?

Ultimately, the clear movement is a marketing thing. You're not supposed to think about it, just consume.

"It's the convergence of the Perrier phenomenon with the green consciousness and the health consciousness left over from the '80s," says Bob Garfield, who reviews ad campaigns for the trade magazine Advertising Age.

"Once it began to dawn on marketers that people would pay a premium to have water shipped by freighters from Europe, then they began to think that the public is stupid enough to mistake clarity with healthfulness."

"It's an attempt to tie into the environmental movement, and a lame attempt at that," adds Gerald Celente of the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y. "I mean, turpentine is clear. Clear doesn't mean better, and that's what it's being pawned off as."

The marketing of clear products marks the meeting of a number of factors, none of which is more important than what Garfield calls "the constant striving of consumer products people to throw mud up against the wall and see what sticks."

Doug Hall of Richard Saunders International, a Cincinnati-based firm that tests consumer acceptance of new products, says the clear phenomenon goes straight for the senses.

"When we introduce a new product and say it's different, and we can see and feel the difference," he says, "that's sensory support, and that works. When Pepsi says it's a different taste, I believe you. Clear isn't necessarily a matter of absence of, it's giving a benefit--better skin, new taste. People want the clear to support a benefit."

So in pushing their clear goodies, ad people have crafted an appeal to environmental consciousness that is also a way to go after a hipper, younger demographic with a "now" product. Along the way, they're sending a message that the '80s--the Age of Excess--are finally over.

"What applies to almost all the clear products is the idea that clear is more honest and more '90s," says Leslie Savan, who writes about advertising for the Village Voice. "The '80s (were) about glitter and content and things, whereas now we're supposed to be seeing things as they really are, and this is supposed to be a poetic product analogy for that."

In other words, transparency is supposed to represent purity. But transparent can be defined two ways: as "capable of transmitting light so that objects or images can be seen as if there were no intervening material" or as "easily understood or detected; flimsy or obvious: transparent lies."

So the question is: Are clear products really benign or the supermarket version of the emperor's new clothes?

Take, for example, the plastic packaging of a lot of these clear products.

They may be recyclable (meaning you can reuse them), but they aren't biodegradable (they won't decompose into natural elements). Once they're dumped into a landfill, they will have the same environmental effect as their colorful counterparts--those plastic bottles will sit there until the dinosaurs return.

And how about the clear ingredients?

For the most part, they're no different from anything else on the shelves: Some have very few chemicals, some have a lot. A product like Ban for Men Clear Deodorant contains about as many ingredients as unclear Ban, like propylene glycol, steareth-100, sodium stearate, isosteareth-2, triethanolamine, triclosan, and FD&C Blue 1.

This trip through the periodic table also brings up the question of how clear products achieve their transparent state.

Once again, the answer is all over the map. Some, like Crystal Pepsi, simply remove certain key ingredients with color found in Pepsi. Others, notably detergents and cosmetics, substitute some chemicals for others. In the case of clear beer--Coors is testing a clear malt beverage called Zima--it involves an extraction process. You dump charcoal powder into a tank of beer, then filter out the powder, which tends to remove the beer's color.

But clear is not just a chemical thing. It's a marketing phenomenon that has as much to do with shelf space in your local store as anything else.

Colas, for example, which once dominated the $50-billion soft drink market, have seen their share dwindle to a little more than half of total sales. Threatened by quasi-natural upstarts like Snapple and Sundance, cola giants Pepsi and Coke have gone back into the research lab and come up with their "New Age" alternatives. Enter Crystal Pepsi and Coke's Nordic Mist.

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