This black-and-white cinema advertisement for Persil Washing Powder uses the style of a romantic musical to literally sing the praises of the powder’s effectiveness.
In their bridal suite, a newly married couple on their honeymoon (Muriel Howard and Albert Chappelle) retell in song the story of how Persil Washing Powder brought them together and transformed a ‘drab and dreary’ Miss into a Mrs!
The husband and wife duo, accompanied by sing-a-long subtitles and orchestra, pack and unpack their suitcases of newly washed clothes before happily revealing the box of Persil Washing Powder.
Summary by Poppy De Souza
Advertisements for domestic products such as this one were often sold on their transformative ability to make a housewife’s life easier. This Unilever brand of washing powder’s particular magic is its ‘oxygen dazzle’ which, unlike bar soap, allows the washing powder to lather easily without the need for rubbing and scrubbing. Similar advertisements praising the use of Rinso soap and laundry powder products can be seen in Then came happiness and Rinso Laundry Powder: Hugh and Hilda Jones. Rinso was also manufactured by Unilever, and while Rinso has since disappeared, a range of Persil laundry products can still be found on the shelves of shopping aisles around the country.
The husband and wife in this advertisement are played by theatre performers Muriel Howard and Albert Chappelle, both of whom had appeared in JC Williamson theatre productions. JC Williamson (who is credited with the arrangement for this ad) had a production company which staged musical theatre and operettas throughout the country. The clothing for this advertisement was provided by Snows – a department store founded by retailer Sir Sydney Snow.
Cinema advertisements had used various narrative forms since the 1920s. By presenting the advertisement in this way, the audience could easily identify with the situation and, by extension, with the wonders of the featured product. The choice of a romantic or musical comedy in this ad – a popular genre in feature films of the 1930s and early 1940s – provides the viewer with an identifiable dramatised scene. As we see in the end of this advertisement, shooting in colour was an available option, but the choice of black-and-white adds believability to the romantic comedy genre. At one point, husband and wife switch sides of the room and model clothes from each others’ suitcases. The husband holds up his wife’s silky negligee before folding it and putting it back where it belongs. And while not pushing the boundaries of conventional gender roles, this brief moment adds to the association of Persil with lightness, brightness, fun and ‘dazzle’.
The traditional role of women in the home is reflected in this advertisement where, although the man benefits from the effects of Persil Washing Powder (through both his own clean clothes, and a dazzling wife), it is the woman who this ad appeals to. The line ‘Monday will be a fun day’ refers to the traditional washing day where women would often spend a whole day rubbing and scrubbing to do the laundry. With Persil, the implication is that time and effort will be saved so that Mondays will no longer be such a drag.
Notes by Poppy De Souza
This clip shows a newly married couple (Muriel Howard and Albert Chappelle) on their honeymoon, settling into their bridal suite. They retell in song the story of how Persil washing powder brought them together and transformed a ‘drab and dreary’ Miss into a Mrs. The husband-and-wife duo, accompanied by sing-a-long subtitles and orchestra, unpack their suitcases of newly washed clothes before the wife happily reveals a box of Persil washing powder.
The musical comedy genre that inspired this commercial and that the audience would have been familiar with has its roots in the operettas of the late 19th century, which evolved first into the stage musical comedies of Broadway and later into the musicals of the 1940s. Some were subsequently made into films, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma (1943), Carousel (1945) and South Pacific (1949). Musicals have fast-moving plots interspersed with songs, and the focus of the performance is on the musical numbers.
This commercial demonstrates features of the musical film, as well as of the stage musical comedies that it derived from. For example, the actors deliver their performances to the camera as if there is a live audience watching them, often even speaking directly to the camera. Muriel Howard refers to the viewers as ‘them’, reminding her amorous husband that there are people watching, even in their honeymoon suite.
‘Onscreen’ advertisements were part of the cinema program from the beginning of cinema in the 1900s and often reflected the structures and conventions of feature films, communicating their messages in story form. The preference of soap companies for this style of advertising led to their later associations with radio and television dramas, and so the emergence of ‘soap operas’. Their Day provides an early and sedate example of the use of sex, subtly implied with suggestive winks, a cheeky clothing swap and an attempted smooch, to advertise a completely unrelated product.
The husband and wife in this advertisement are played by popular theatre performers of the period, Muriel Howard and Albert Chappelle, both of whom had appeared in J C Williamson theatre productions. J C Williamson, who is credited with the musical arrangement for this advertisement, had a production company that staged musical theatre and operettas throughout Australia.
Gender roles were clearly defined in the 1940s. Washing clothes was women’s work and Monday was traditionally seen as washing day in the 19th and early to mid-20th centuries. This day was spent boiling water in coppers, struggling with tubs and washboards, carrying wood and water, making starch, dealing with caustic substances and wringing heavy wet cloth. Washing was a physically demanding and time-consuming activity until the 1930s and 40s, when electric washing machines became available to those who could afford them.
The Cinderella narrative of this commercial is just one of its persuasive techniques. Using Persil, it suggests, will win a woman a husband, bring her happiness, make her the envy of all the other girls and wives, and flood her world with gorgeous technicolour. It will also avail her of all the wonders of modern science. Washing powder commercials are ideal for advertising’s seductive, transformative fairytales, because every wash involves a ‘before’ and an ‘after’.
Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia