Ice-T drives an electric car. He has solar panels on his house. “I’m not a fanatic when it comes to the environment, but I definitely try to do my part,” says the actor and musician.

Now he’s working to help Tide clean up some of TV advertising’s most well-worn elements.

Most ads for laundry detergent and other wash-and-dry accoutrements have relied for decades on the same themes. Someone pours a cup of blue liquid on a stained piece of clothing, and after a simulated wash and rinse, the garment comes out looking spotless and new. But in a new campaign that Tide parent Procter & Gamble hopes will have many cycles, Ice-T and professional wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin have something more grandiose to offer.

There’s no chatter in the commercials about “brighter colors” or “whiter whites.” Instead, the two make “cold calls” to celebrities like Vanilla Ice, Mr. T and Annie Murphy, urging them to consider the fact that using Tide and a cold-water wash gets clothes clean, and helps save energy and boost the environment. Those antics may not sound particularly shocking or avant-garde, but the ads – which carry the quick-fire humor viewers might associate more closely with beer commercials – represent a radical step in the business of trying to sell consumer staples like detergent, diapers, or toothpaste.


“Traditional detergent advertising is the kind of stuff people work very hard to avoid these days,” says Tim Calkins, professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “Nobody wants to see that on TV or before a YouTube video plays. It’s completely predictable and expected.”

Tide has tried to scrub out old laundry ads in the past. A “talking stain” debuted to some fanfare in a commercial in Super Bowl XLII in 2008. In recent years, Procter & Gamble has put Tide at the forefront of some daring media executions in the Big Game. One had Fox Sports broadcaster Terry Bradshaw lead viewers from on-screen analysis to humorous spot. Another spread Tide all over various Super Bowl commercial breaks by running spots that looked like archetypal commercials but were eventually revealed to be ads for Tide.

Super Bowl commercials, however, are expected to break the mold. Commercials in a more general campaign are not.

Procter & Gamble is taking bigger swings to get consumers to pay closer attention. As part of its push to warm people to cold washes, the company has changed the colors of the Tide logo from its usual “Tide Orange” and “Sunrise Yellow” to “Denim Blue” and “Clean White” — a seismic shift for a brand that maintains a connection to millions of households.

“The Tide ‘Bull’s-Eye’ is very special, and it really has not changed much in 75 years,” says Amy Krehbiel, brand vice president for P&G’s North America fabric care operations. Tide has also struck a partnership with Hanes, the large garment manufacturer, which has put the Tide logo on some of its packaging to encourage customers to go cold. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and this may be the first time we’ve ever had another brand on our packaging,” says Jaye Powell, vice president and general manager for Hanes’ male underwear and sock businesses. “That’s a big deal to us.”

Any change in Tide advertising is likely to gain some notice. Procter & Gamble spent $241 million on traditional ads for the detergent in 2020, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. And the product generated around $4.38 billion in sales for the company in the past 12 months, according to data from Nielsen.

Many of the biggest manufacturers of commercials are updating their old models.

General Motors, which runs dozens of ads each year highlighting luxurious auto interiors and vehicles on the open highway, recently tapped celebrities including Will Ferrell, Kenan Thompson, Timothee Chalamet, Winona Ryder and Sofia Vergara to draw potential customers to new electric cars. Verizon has put more emphasis on helping consumers get previously unavailable views of big events like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Oscars with its 5G technology.

But getting consumers interested in even the next new thing can be a challenge. “Most people are fairly skeptical of traditional advertising,” notes Andrew McKechnie, senior vice president and chief creative officer at Verizon.

The big companies are spurred on by high levels of new disruption. More viewers who once endured commercial breaks on traditional TV have moved to streaming hubs, which run fewer ads — putting pressure on those commercials that remain to stand out. And the companies themselves have cutting-edge things to pitch, including new technologies and features that play upon emerging interests in global sustainability.

Changing the old approach is risky for these time-honored marketers, suggests Vann Graves, executive director of the Brandcenter, a program for advertising students at Virginia Commonwealth University. “These are things that are safe and sacred. ‘My mom used Tide. My mom used Comet. My mom used Listerine. Don’t mess with what makes me feel safe.’ These connections are sacred at a personal level for a lot of brands,” he says. “You do have to measure if it’s worth taking these risks and if so, how much market share are you really going to get.”

Yet if the stalwarts don’t embrace new consumer habits, upstarts will. A phalanx of digitally savvy new companies has begun to dig into time-honored categories like razor blades and mattresses that have long been the province of big consumer-packaged goods companies like P&G, Unilever, Kimberly-Clark and others. Case in point: Cloud Paper, a startup that makes toilet paper and paper towels from bamboo, says it aims to take “a direct hit at toilet paper industry giants and their use of old-growth forests.” Celebrity backers include Ashton Kutcher and Gwyneth Paltrow.

A product like Tide, says Calkins, might have to wage battle with a new competitor that speaks directly about how its use might help the environment or wellness. “The best thing you can do to stop that from happening is to get ahead of it,” he says.

But P&G executives aren’t just paying lip service to sustainability. The cold-water initiative is something Tide plans to talk about for the next decade, says Krehbiel. And the company did five years of research before unveiling its plan. “We looked end to end at product usage” and determined that 90% of the energy of a single load of laundry comes from heating the water, she says. The new ads were set to come out last year, but when the pandemic hit, Procter & Gamble and Hanes decided to put off the effort’s launch until consumers’ lives moved back to a more normal footing.

And the tone of the ads had to change. “It’s not the newest category out there, so you have to be thinking about what can bring it back to top of mind,” says Paul Bichler, executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, which works on Tide advertising as part of a suite of agencies.

Agency creatives knew the topic of the environment was serious but realized preachy commercials wouldn’t land with consumers. So they had some of the celebrities give what they felt would be a natural reaction: mild annoyance at getting a pitch, even from Ice-T and Stone Cold. “They react like anyone would: ‘Why are we talking about this?’ We have celebrities in the shoes of the average person,” says Daniel Lobaton, Saatchi’s chief creative officer. “This is a big important brand telling you a big important thing. How do we get you there? Can we acknowledge that and at the same time encourage the change we want?”

Ice-T could be talking about cold water washes and Tide for some time, but he seems ready for it. “When you’re a celebrity and you do a commercial, you are kind of throwing yourself out there,” says the actor, who has done popular ads for Geico and Cascade in the past. “It’s always great when the ad is received well and people like it, but you don’t want to do something when people say, ‘Why the hell did you do that?’”

There’s little harm, he suggests, in talking about trying to make the world a better place.