I'LL NEVER FORGET the morning I learned the truth about "Lather. Rinse. Repeat."
For years, I'd dutifully followed the instructions on my shampoo bottle, earnest in my belief that these three simple steps would make my hair lustrous, manageable, bouncy and a whole slew of other adjectives I ordinarily wouldn't want to be used to describe me.
Then, one day, my wife filled me in on a little secret.
I remember the moment well. She stood at the bathroom mirror, cheerily brushing her teeth, while I stood in the shower, taking one of my customary early-morning naps, specifically the one that falls between my first and second cups of coffee.
My lovely bride spotted me in the mirror as I raised my hand above the shower curtain to retrieve the shampoo bottle once, then twice.
"What are you doing?" Julie asked.
"Washing my hair," I muttered. It was early, too early to be awake, really, but I was fairly confident I was indeed washing my hair. I checked and found it to be so. "Yeah. Washing my hair. I lathered and rinsed. Now I'm repeating."
"You don't have to do that, you know," she said. "They only say that so you’ll have to buy more shampoo."
With that, she whirled out of the room, uttering the words husbands everywhere hate to hear: "Think about it."
My eyes stung with indignation and shampoo.
Now, I've always considered myself a wise consumer. I've always thought I was hip to the multitude of ways Madison Avenue and its apparatchiks can take advantage of a fellow.
But obviously, I was more gullible than I thought.
The veil of suds was lifted from my eyes that morning, and I could see clearly that I had been soaped. The company I had been loyal to for so many years--the good people who make Prell, White Rain, Head & Shoulders, or whatever the devil the name of my shampoo is--had taken me for a fool.
Unfortunately, this lather-rinse-repeat scam is being played out on an even larger scale these days.
According to a recent story in The New York Times, manufacturers have begun waging subtle campaigns to get us to use their products more quickly than we need to, just so that we will rush out and buy more, more, more.
It began a few years ago when several soft-drink makers began stamping a "freshness date" on their bottles. They wanted to plant the idea in our heads that we'd better pour the fizzy sugar water down our throats right away, or we'd risk drinking inferior fizzy sugar water later on.
There’s little or no chance a bottle of soda will ever go bad, of course, as long as you keep the cap on. In fact, if the world were obliterated by a nuclear war, cockroaches would be kicking back and sipping our soft drinks by the pool.
Breweries have joined the fresh- ness campaign too. Anheuser- Busch recently began stamping a brewing date on its Budweisers, in hopes that beer drinkers will guzzle a little faster to keep their beer from going stale.
The fact is, beer usually doesn't go stale for many, many years. But even if beer could spoil, is it likely a six-pack would ever sit in a convenience-store cooler long enough for that to happen?
This subterfuge isn't limited to beverages, I'm sorry to say. Manufacturers are tinkering with nearly everything in our house, beginning in the room where Americans are most obsessive--the bathroom.
Gillette, for instance, recently unveiled a new high-tech razor that cost the company $750 million to develop, according to The New York Times. Among the features is a blue strip that tells you when it's time to replace the razor--just in case you're too dull to figure that out yourself.
Gillette has also installed a timer, of sorts, on its Oral B toothbrushes. One style comes with what’s called--I kid you not--an "early warning system." It's a little blue strip that slowly fades with use, eventually indicating that it's time to chuck the toothbrush and buy another one.
"When the blue is gone, it’s time to move on," according to the ads for Oral B.
Industry officials are pretty matter-of-fact about what they're doing. "These companies are all competing in very mature markets," says Tom Vierhile, who works for Marketing Intelligence Services, a new-product research firm. "They have got to invent strategies to increase user rates. If you double the throwaway rate, you double sales."
(In the interest of full disclosure, I probably ought to acknowledge that newspapers also encourage consumers to throw away their products and buy new ones. The paper you are reading, in fact, is about to expire. On this particular page, the freshness date is listed in the right-hand corner.)
Now, I suppose all of this is fairly harmless, as trends go.
After all, if we're dim enough to let corporations tell us when we’re done using a thingamajig and when we need to buy a new one, then we're probably getting what we deserve.
And besides, it's not like they’re stamping a freshness date on us.
Maybe we’d better keep one eye open in the shower, just in case.