Spinning Stories

Roland Barthes and soap by ebutterworth
August 28, 2009, 10:06 am
Filed under: Laundry Instructions and tips, Uncategorized

In his famous work unpicking some of the iconic symbols of 1950s France, Mythologies, Roland Barthes turns his attention to soap powder adverts. He’s interested in how each product describes its relationship to dirt: chemical fluids are dangerous substances that need to be carefully regulated; they ‘kill’ the dirt, but could also (if used too abundantly) ‘burn’ the object. Soap powders are less aggressive: they gently separate the dirt from the object, ‘liberating’ clothes from the invasion of grime.

Two examples of adverts from the fifties: Persil compared two towels of different degrees of whiteness, appealing to our vanity and our shame, and presenting us with a finished product, miraculously cleansed of dirt. Omo, on the other hand, involved the consumer in the process of cleaning, describing the means through which its powder gently coaxes the grime away from the fabric, infusing its rich foam into the clothes with a light, airy, yet powerful cleaning substance.

What both adverts did was hide the abrasive action of soap powder with a persuasive narrative of air, foam, luxury and miracle. And Barthes also points out that hiding behind both products, despite their rival status on the market, is one and the same multinational company: Unilever. (Roland Barthes, ‘Soap-Powders and Detergents’, Mythologies, 1957)


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