« The 2010Q3 GDP report: Investing in a silver lining | Main | Eurozone Adjustment Asymmetry »


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Attack of the I'm-off-my-meds-crazy-rant spammer. What I find puzzling is what motivates people to post 10,000 word rants about nothing in particular with no commercial aim.

Frances, I think your explanation is accurate. Claim many loads per bottle and encourage overuse through oversized measures. Consumers don't count loads per bottle, so within a factor of two or so their suspicion is not raised.

Where else do these things crop up? Automobile mileage? I suppose that case is different because the carmaker usually doesn't also sell the fuel. Other consumables like toilet paper?

I find the same issue with hand soaps with pumps. Usually a full pump is far too much soap and you'd have to wash some off for it to lather properly, so I find myself using a half or third of a pump. The manufacturer is clearly encouraging you to use more with the design of the pump.

I believe they are starting to make washing machines with holding tanks for detergent and softener which can then dose the appropriate amount into a load depending on the cycle, soil level, size of load you select.


My detergent caps look identical to yours, presumably because they are provided by the same major manufacturer. My laundry room is upstairs, next to a window - I still have to turn on the light to see the markings. Of course, the depth of the cap, relative to the fill lines, contributes to this problem by shadowing them. And the easiest line to see is the top one, third from the bottom, which you should never use whether your load is large or small. So why is it there?

A straight-up price increase is not really the same as being tricked into overconsumption. I can't think of a price analogy of the top of my head. Maybe something like blurring the ink on the price tag...

Soap company execs bonuses and the like are probably based on increases in revenue. One way to increase revenue is to trick people into using more soap. Presto, you get your bonus.

I think you're right about it being a combination of price discrimination / selling more detergent to all but the most careful.

It's strange that such practices don't violate Canada's Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act (since they're clearly intended to mislead) - but they don't.

The relevant part of the act:


1. Fill Level

Section 9 Act

Packages must be filled in such a manner that a consumer may not reasonably be misled with respect to the quantity of product it contains.

2. Package Design and Display

Section 9 Act

Packages must be manufactured, constructed, or displayed in such a manner that a consumer is not misled with respect to the quality or quantity of product it contains.

I'd argue such practices would seem to violate the spirit but not the act as written (which deals with the container itself, not an internal scoops). As such they are allowed.

Patrick - but why don't those people who are tricked into overusing detergent say "that detergent didn't last very long and did a lousy job of washing my clothes"?

If my Tide runs out really quickly, sure I'll come back and buy again, but next time I might buy Woolite or Sunlight.

But perhaps that's part of the answer - this strategy would only be profitable in an environment with limited competition, so there's pretty good odds that the consumer coming back to buy more detergent will buy your brand again?

Phil - I always figured the third line was there to stop people from using the first one. Or perhaps it's like those ads showing SUVs climbing up mountain sides - we're all fantasizing about this rugged outdoor life we live...

Andrew F - mouthwash is an even more extreme example, the recommended amount is about 1 or 2 tbsps, and the caps hold several times that amount.

I suppose this is economics-related, if you're probing the "rational" consumer's choice of the product. Since many consumer products are me-too versions of the same product, I'd guess the "rational" consumer may just do a side-by-side comparison in the store and see little/no difference between versions, so choose based on micro-ephemera printed on the bottle/box. Marketing wins, and the rational consumer chooses between versions of the same thing.

Frances: I suppose they just don't notice. Perhaps the cost of keeping a running total on their laundry soap use and efficiency is not worth the effort when compared to the other demands on their brain's CPU cycles. And maybe people are just bad at keeping that running total in their head in the same way people tend to be very bad at reasoning probabilistically.


Another brilliant post! The alcohol pour thing was interesting. Perhaps that's why in countries where it is more expensive (e.g., UK, India) the pours are always measured in a jigger? Perhaps you can contemplate a future post on why the standard measure differs so much from country to country? 1.5 oz in the US is typical, whereas in Canada it's more likely 1.25, whereas in the UK and India it's a measly 25 ml. Now that's one part of the colonial legacy I could have lived without!

Vivek, clearly a question that calls for detailed study using a participant-observation methodology! 25 ml is about 3/4 of an ounce so that's 1/2 a US measure. Differential labour costs? Temperatures? Or perhaps a history of oppression?

Patrick, the choice of cap shape (wide instead of slender) suggests that the manufacturers are exploiting some kind of weakness in our brains' ability to measure things - as you say, limitations of the CPU. And if a manufacturer has sufficient market power, so it's pretty sure that consumers buying more soap means consumers buying more of *their* soap, then that's a profit maximizing strategy.

Or it's because more soap works better? I've always been told to use twice the recommended amount.

Lol, very interesting! So we are not only unknowingly pouring money down the drain, we are also unknowingly creating more pollution by pouring more-than-necessary into the drain. Not the best thing to do...

Also sprach Analyst

hmmm, before reading your update (and I still haven't read the comments) I'd have thought the price discrimination theory the best.

Seems little different than what Ryanair does, charge just 1 pound for the ticket but then make your money charging for everything else. Someone who is determined enough could make their trip for 1 pound but in practice it's really hard.

But it does let people buy only the amount of convenience that they want.

On the other hand the planned obsolecence story doesn't seem right because of the amount of control the user has. Word users have no control at all on when MS brings out new versions but detergent users have complete control over whether they over-use soap, if at the cost of paying close attention.

Choice of brand of detergent is an emotional choice. The detergents are all effectively the same. So... how to pick. Size of package, the word "green" on the logo, price, is it the convenient bottle that rests on its side so I only push the button and some detergent goes into my machine?

I don't know about anyone else but I try to think about these things, but I sure ain't rational at Costco.

Also, the use of the product is separate from its purchase and there are multiple uses. "This time I'll use a little extra because the kids were playing in the mud" quickly becomes a habit.


Maybe Pedro is right. They are certainly incentivized to claim that it washes a greater number of loads than it really does. So maybe we do need more than the recommended amount.

Pedro, click on the link above to read the New York Times article (if it doesn't come up immediately, you can register for free). By using too much detergent, you can wreck your clothes or your machine. This is the test that they recommend.

"Take four to six clean bath towels, put them in your front-loading washing machine (one towel for a top loader). Don’t add any detergent or fabric softener. Switch to the hot water setting and medium wash and run it for about five minutes.

Check for soap suds. If you don’t see any suds right away, turn off the machine and see if there is any soapy residue. If you see suds or residue, it is soap coming out of your clothes from the last wash."

Adam P, no, you're right, it's not quite the same as planned obsolescence. However, the theory of planned obsolescence is useful in explaining the circumstances under which it's profitable for manufacturers.

Chris "is it the convenient bottle that rests on its side so I only push the button and some detergent goes into my machine?" unfortunately none of the brands that meet my other constraints (e.g. not giving family members rashes) come in that size. I don't know how easy it is to measure that accurately, but I know that when I measure accurately with the cap and then pour the detergent into the machine, it comes no where near the 'max amount' line on the machine.

One thing I should mention: using too much soap is not just a question of waste in my household. Our washing machine is a finicky European model that senses "excess suds" and throws a tantrum when they are detected.

Why does the machine have this feature? Perhaps the manufacturer is looking out for our interests. Or, it may just be Teutonic thoroughness. But I note that the manufacturer sells its own soap, and its recommendation for fixing the over-suds problem is to use that soap. So one interpretation is that it is taking advantage of the overuse policy of most soap manufacturers to promote its own product.

Question from a guy who doesn't do enough around the house:

I know you can get pre-measured dishwasher detergent packages. Do these exist for laundry detergent?

Mike, not where I live and for my machine, but perhaps they exist for other machines/in other places. Since in general the amount of soap used is a function of the size of the wash and dirtiness of the clothes probably there's not that much demand for that.

I wonder if there's some kind of gender/intra-family dynamics at play here as well. Perhaps other people have model children who responsibly do the dishes after dinner. Then it makes sense to have pre-measured dishwasher detergent - no risk of anything getting wrecked. I suspect laundry, being (generally) less time sensitive, is less likely to get delegated to family members with, shall we say, lower levels of household-specific human capital?

I used to face this dilemma when feeding a cat that would eat whatever you put in its bowl. My handful of food was not a good measure - so I went to the dollar store, picked up a set of plastic cooking measuring cups like here: http://tinyurl.com/263gt7k ,did some research on recommended quantities of food, and picked the cup size that was closest. Works well. Saves food. The cat I think even lost a few.

Seems like a good idea for detergent - a set of Wooley Wash "optimal economic and environmental apportioning implements - adjustable for hard/soft water, load size ..." Dragon's Den can't be far off.

Certainly I have thought more about this post than I had intially anticipated - good work, Fran! I'd go for price discrimination as part of the answer: when my mom first taught me to cook, she drilled into my head that you cannot accurately measure anything in a measuring cup by looking at it from above - you must hold it so that the relevant line is at eye level. This translated easily, for me, into measuring detergent. I don't know what other skills train people to measure this way - science classes? Alternative/addiitonal possibilities: the claim is that Victoria has very soft water, so we only need about half the recommended amount of laundry detergent - and I assume this also applies to dishwater detergent. Does the larger cap size allow for more variation in hardness of water across geographic areas? On width vs height: is a wide cap easier to grip and open? Older people choose this?

Yeah I noticed in my front loading dishwasher that there's a little line in the detergent dispenser. When using a full box of detergent it is almost impossible to only fill to the line level (1/4 the size of the container).

Just goes to show...

Powder in a front-load washer? I didn't think you were supposed to use powder.

"I don't know what other skills train people to measure this way - science classes?"

In chemistry class you are taught to align the centre, not the edge of the meniscus with the measurement gradation (a meniscus is typically convex or concave rather than flat.) But to do this requires a transparent container. The photo above is misleading in that it is so strongly back-lit; normally that cap is completely opaque, so your preferred technique is impossible.

But what about the fact that the manufacturer is incentivized to say on the box that it washes a million loads?  But if they do that, they have put a millionth of a box marker on the measuring cup.  All they can do is make it very faint, and then give you a very big cup and hope you use a lot.  But Pedro is right: there is a good reason to assume that the marker is too low on the cup.

I meant: "*So* Pedro is right"

"Why does the machine have this feature?"

Oddly enough I googled this once. If memory serves ... The new front end loader machines all have small, high speed pumps. The old machines had larger, slower pumps. In a new machine. The high speed pump will create suds and stall, which can burn out the motor. I think it might also affect the mechanics of how the clothes get cleaned - i.e. being lifted and flopping down on the water in the drum. If the drum is full of suds, there's no flopping.

Phil K - Interesting. I've just discovered that our local mid-East food store sells the European detergent Persil for far less than the price charged by the up-market appliance store selling Teutonic washing machines - but if it has Arabic writing on it is it in fact the same product? Anyone know? Yes, the backlighting is misleading - the measure is really hard to read. Powerful flash and reflective tile.

Linda - Great observations, thanks! I was taught to measure, like Phil, in Chemistry class. It might be easier to pour detergent into a wide cap rather than a narrow cap - but why do the caps have to be so tall? If the cap was only just a little bit taller than necessary for a large, heavily soiled load, then it would be much easier to deal with.

An alternative explanation is that there's some design people in one part of the building designing pretty caps, and some product development people in another part of the building working out how concentrated to make the product, and they never talk to each other. Incompetence should never be ruled out as an explanation for anything!

I also have a scoop for powder which I didn't include because the picture included some dirt on the kitchen counter - with the scoop for powder, again, the recommended amount is only half a scoop.

JVFM - well, your suggestions have been prescient before...

K: Clearly, in the interests of science, to say nothing of economics and the environment, Pedro needs to do the towel test and report the results ;-)

I suspect that your clothes dryer does more damage to your clothes vs excess detergent. So detergent makers probably get a free pass here.

Chris - actually, both my husband and I grew up in families that never used clothes driers, and air dry our clothes whenever possible.

Just Visiting - check out Economy Lab in the Globe and Mail early next week. I've stolen your idea and used it without acknowledgment. Thanks!

No problemo. You got a "scoop". I've actually fed a few columnists ideas in the past. One even got some award. Coinkidink. :)

Scoop. Groan.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Search this site

  • Google

Blog powered by Typepad