Making Bad Choices

In my admittedly hazy memory of the simpler days of my childhood in the 1950s and ’60s, things came in threes. There were the Big Three automakers, of course, but there were also three brands of shampoo (Breck, Prell, and Halo), and three brands of toothpaste (Colgate, Ipana, and Pepsodent). Even though we didn’t have TV, I remember the advertising slogan for Pepsodent (“You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent“) and Bucky Beaver singing “Brusha brusha brusha with the new Ipana.”

Even though we were a Colgate family, I don’t remember any Colgate commercials. Perhaps they didn’t need to advertise, being the grandfather of toothpastes. Colgate toothpaste (or possibly tooth powder) was sold in glass jars beginning in 1873; in 1896, Colgate was the first toothpaste sold in a collapsible tube. As other toothpastes rose and fell (Ipana 1901–1979, Pepsodent 1915–1960s), Colgate hung on. In fact, Wikipedia tells us:

According to a 2015 report by market research company Kantar Worldpanel, Colgate is the only brand in the world purchased by more than half of all households. Colgate has a global market penetration of 67.7% and a global market share of 45%. Despite this, it maintained the highest growth rate of all brands in the survey, with 40 million new households purchasing Colgate-branded products in 2014. Its global market penetration is nearly 50%; higher than the second-placed brand in the study, Coca-Cola with 43.3% penetration.

Some brands declined because they were slow to add fluoride. The first to do so was Crest, in 1954 (it was actually first introduced under the brand name “Fluoristan”). By 1958, Crest was third in sales, behind Colgate and Gleem (an earlier Procter & Gamble challenger to Colgate-Palmolive’s market leader).

It doesn’t take much googling, of course, to be reminded of other brands I’d forgotten—White Rain shampoo and Gleem toothpaste, for example—but one thing was true of all of them: they may have come in more than one size or type of packaging or even form (in addition to toothpaste, there was tooth powder, and Prell shampoo came as both a liquid in a bottle and a gel in a tube, both green), but there was just one basic product. Colgate Dental Cream was one such.

Compare that to today: the product page at the Colgate website list 47 discrete products! These include brand names such as Colgate Total®, Optic White®, Enamel Health™, MaxFresh®, Sensitive, and PreviDent®, plus sub-brands including CoolScrub® and Shockwave™. It gets worse: search for “Colgate toothpaste” at Walmart.com, and you will get 19 pages featuring 725 SKUs of Colgate toothpaste in various packaging options. Obviously, you can’t find all these varieties in a Walmart store, but that hasn’t stopped me from accidentally buying tooth gel when I wanted toothpaste or puzzling over the difference between “Clean Mint” and “Fresh Mint” flavors. The result is that I seem never to come home with the same product twice.

In 1958, when Colgate was the #1 toothpaste and Crest was #3, presumably there were seven others in the Top Ten. Want to see today’s Top Ten? A Statista page lists them for 2017: Crest is #1, but also #7, #8, and #9. Colgate is #4 (Colgate Total), #5 (Colgate), #6 (Colgate Optic White), and #10 (Colgate MaxFresh). The second and third spots are claimed by Sensodyne. In other words, the top ten products represent only three companies. Adding all the figures together, the combined total for Colgate ($583 million) is still more than for Crest ($568.8 million), with Sensodyne a distant third ($365.9 million). Confused yet?

What brought all this to mind (not that I don’t think about it every time I shop for toothpaste—and it’s not just Colgate: my husband uses Arm & Hammer) was an item I recently read in February 2018 issue of The Rotarian:

Business owners and policy makers can make shopping easier if they pay attention to “choice overload.” According to studies and meta-analyses by professors at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, too many options can leave consumers unhappy with their purchase or so overwhelmed that they choose nothing. The researchers recommend that to mitigate overload, companies and agencies should make product information simple to understand, not pressure consumers to make quick decisions, and offer a grace period to allow purchasers to change their minds.

Having recently shopped for a new clothes dryer, I can attest to the effect of “choice overload.” Trying to sort out the comparative features of given models of even a single brand is especially daunting when you are under pressure to avoid yet another Saturday afternoon entirely devoted to getting clothes dry in a dryer that has stopped drying.

Looking back again to the halcyon days of my childhood, I seem to remember a time when there was one variety of a product. Occasionally a manufacturer would pep up advertising by bringing out a “New and Improved” version of its product. We might be secretly convinced that the only difference between the old detergent and the new was the “New and Improved” label on the box, but at least it was the same old Tide. It wasn’t a new version with a different scent sitting side-by-side with the old Tide on the supermarket shelf. It always seemed to me that the rot first infected breakfast cereals. We had shredded wheat, corn flakes, raisin bran, and a few other basics. Suddenly the cereal aisle exploded. If the cereal was good with raisins, maybe we needed it with raisins and almonds. Or berries. Or yogurt. Or (gag) chocolate. You know what I’m talking about!

There are certainly circumstances in which variety is desirable: soup, for example. I recently discovered Campbell’s “Well Yes!” soups. They’re really quite good, and there are 14 varieties. But my grocery store carries only three. I’d love to try the rest. But do we really need this many ways to clean our bathrooms?

This embarras de choix is especially difficult when you have finally used up a product you liked but used so infrequently that in the interim between buying it and exhausting it, it has been replaced by ten similar but not exactly the same products. Which to choose?

Worst of all, you go to replace a household staple, buy the same thing you’ve always bought, and find that it has become something entirely different. I have been buying Ajax Liquid dishwashing detergent for as long as I can remember. If I had to guess, I’d say that it probably had a lemon scent, but nothing I noticed.

Although Ajax Liquid now comes in five scents, I bought the usual one, which is described as having “the fresh, clean aroma of lemon.” This bottle, however, does not smell like lemon, nor does it smell like the old Ajax. It smells, as my husband is wont to say, like a service station restroom: that is, it is obtrusively redolent of some offensively “pretty” scent intended to cover up smells that are less pleasant. I find I can’t bear to use it.

And no, I don’t want to go back to the days of the general store, where you ask for toothpaste and the proprietor gives you a tube (or tin) of the single brand he carries, but I am absolutely not convinced that any particular variety of Colgate will whiten my teeth, freshen my breath, or protect me from cavities or gingivitis better than any other.

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