Dirt is Good – and Persil Washes Whiter

postcard-persil-62  So the Unilever  “dirt is good” campaign has been resurrected after 11 years in hibernation. I remember being aware of the glossy brochure and catchy phrase in 2006, and It used to be great to be able to reel off their statistic about grass stains and mud not appearing in the top 10 stains.

At the time I didn’t really question the headline statistic or the motivation behind the slogan. Mass campaigns for outdoor play were in their infancy. Last Child in the Woods was just about to be published and David Bond wasn’t long out of Merrill Lynch. Barely anyone in the UK had ever heard of the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ and outside the US only a few followers of Tom Brown Jnr talked about ‘nature connection’.

This time round, environmental education and outdoor learning have evolved, grown hugely and embrace a much wider range of agendas than  in the past. For me,  corporate co-option of outdoor play and education  is a direct threat to my educational ethos and practice, so I did a bit of digging.
Dirt is good, remember.


The 2006 Persil ‘dirt is good’ marketing campaign was hailed as a great success within brand owner Unilever  and also the advertising industry.  One of the originators of the original campaign , David Arkwright has even written a book about it called ‘The Making of Dirt is Good: A Personal Journal of Brand Transformation (5 used from £5.98). He sums up the campaign in an article in Marketing week

Persil/Omo’s “Dirt is good”, arguably one of the more notable modern-day brand stories, does the same. It weaves a new narrative of real significance into a category that traditionally would boast about the size of its molecules or the severity of stains it could remove. Now, the narrative is that dirt equates to creativity; and parents aspire to have creative, free-thinking and playing kids, as opposed to those locked into pristine-clean conformity. By establishing this story – one of true human significance that is applicable the world over – it propagates meaning, connection and, ultimately, commercial success. It is among Unilever’s biggest brands, exceeding $3bn globally.

Having had a rest from this campaign in the UK at least, Unilever are back at the brand management game – aiming squarely at the parents of young children.  Telling the story of libertarian parenting, messy free play ‘like when we were young’ and persil washing powder to restore the Mini Boden catalogue look that all parents must surely aspire to. I very much doubt that the insights and opinions of outdoor environmental educators and free play advocates are of much value to the company apart from to lend credence to this brand narrative. As David Arkwright told us, ultimately it is all about commercial success.


Dirt is Good is framed as a campaign  for play (it is a campaign but of the marketing kind) backed by  celebrity educationalist Sir Ken Robinson and Dr. Stuart Brown, head of the National Institute of Play.  It isn’t clear if these are voluntary roles or those of paid consultants.I did ask Sir Ken via Twitter but he hasn’t got back to me yet.  Research also gets a mention, but the evidence we are provided is a couple of headlines from the as yet unpublished ‘Play in Balance’ report by independant market research firm Edelman Berland  who apparently interviewed 12000 parents in 10 countries.
The campaign has plenty of coverage in high profile blogs such as dadbloguk.com  and familyadventureproject.org  who at least put disclaimers about their relationship with the company at the end of their posts




A social media buzz is starting – with shares and retweets (at least in my limited cirles) of press release based articles and the campaign film showing conditions in a US maximum security prison.

“Prisoners at a maximum security facility in the U.S. are guaranteed 2 hours of outdoor time daily, whereas 1 out of 2 kids worldwide spends less than an hour outside.”

The campaign film on the theme of Free the kids was shot under  ” genuine documentary conditions” and is a powerful bit of adu-mentary – I was already in the mood to be disturbed and it didn’t disappoint. It isn’t hard to see the subtle message equating parents with jailers, children’s outdoor lives in UK and Ireland with those of adult prisoners in a high security prison.  Does that ring true with you?  How about the 22 hours of the day that these prisoners are not in a caged exercise yard compared with the supposed 23 hours a day that the ‘average’ child  spends indoors.

This campaign for outdoor play has a particular set of play values and agendas all over it, from Sir Kens comments about supervised safe places in his pericsope broadcast on 4th April to the prison guard saying “If you don’t have to throw the kids in the bathtub, they haven’t played hard enough.” Who are we  to judge if a child has ‘played hard enough’ – hard enough for who? This is all a bit irritating but largely peripheral to my main objection to ‘Dirt is Good’.


unilever-brands-logosIt appears that Unilever / Persil  have partnered with ecoschools and project dirt to run this years Empty Classroom Day under the Dirt is Good brand story (interestingly neither organisation have a unilever logo alongside their other partners). This is a much more shocking development because at the heart of empty classroom day  is a great idea – a single day to highlight the importance of learning outdoors. However by participating as educators, signing up on a branded website, we are being unwittingly co-opted as David Arkwrights ‘brand story tellers’ for Persil / Omo etc. That is not a comfortable place for me and although I will likely be teaching and learning outdoors on June 17th, I’ll be thinking especially hard about critical pedagogy rather then being an unwitting accessory to selling more washing powder.



No doubt some might read this and think it’s great that a big company is doing its corporate social responsibility thing and supporting an outdoor play campaign. It could be said that at least they are doing something positive, that it is better to work with companies to help them change…   Your take on these arguments will obviously depend on your view of the world and your own critique of the causes of environmental problems. For me they don’t wash at all.

adamhayes-unilever-testThe key reason is not even good old greenwash – the main reason is that the consumerist lifestyle that has created the social problems leading to children spending less time outdoors is the very raison d’etre of Unilever. They exist to make a profit for their shareholders by getting people to buy more stuff that they could really do without. The making of said stuff uses natural resources, alters or destroys ecosystems, pollutes air, water and soil (dirt is good remember), exploits workers in less economically developed areas and so on and so on. Unilever makes great claims about its environmental credentials in their Sustainable Living Plan but the fact remains that as part of a global capitalist system, they will always be part of the problem. Just one little example  that no doubt will be dear to the heart of all forest educators and that is Palm Oil.  Unilever is the worlds largest user of Palm Oil and following a Greenpeace campaign in 2008, Unilever changed its palm oil purchasing policy, however last year, Rainforest Action Network slammed them as one of the Laggards in terms of progress.

It’s nothing personal Unilever, it wouldn’t matter which giant company took on this issue as part of their branding, the broad arguments would be the same.

“By the end of 2009, (Dirt is Good) DIG’s double-digit growth and market share gains in key markets had contributed positively to Unilever’s overall performance and made DIG one of Unilever’s largest global brands.” source: http://mbvermeer.com/omo-unlocking-global-brand-potential/

So what can we do instead? Well the message that we should be encouraging more unstructured outdoor play and making big socio -economic structural changes to enable freer and healthier environments are indisputable to me. However I will be asking all those schools and teachers that I work with not so sign up on the empty classroom day website this year but to do their own outdoor thing anyway. I will be looking east for inspiration to my friends  Zrodla in Poland and Hungary who have embraced Empty Classroom Day as a grassroots project and have nothing to do with the Unilever campaign.

There is no way that as an educator and parent who cares about social justice, education and natural and wild places, I could ally myself in any way with this marketing campaign in disguise.

Dirt IS good, being part of this ‘brand story’ IS NOT


  • Tim Gill says:

    Dirt is good
    Richard – I agree that one’s views on the merits of corporate social and environmental campaigns depend on one’s views of both the root causes and what can be done to tackle them. I am not comfortable with some aspects of late modern capitalism. But I think my efforts are better directed at trying to make it work better – especially for children – rather than trying to change its fundamentals. This is why I choose to work with some – not all – corporates, including Unilever. (As an aside, my big complaint about Dirt is Good is not that it’s appropriating a issue for its own ends, but that it went quiet for some years when could have been doing so much more.) I see some positives in the move by some corporates – including Unilever – to develop social and environmental programmes. For one thing, it means they can be held to account by those who are pushing for corporates to take more responsibility for their actions.
    All this is of course my choice. I accept that others take a different view.
    However, I think it’s too quick to lay all the ills of childhood or the environment at the door of capitalism. Socialist/Communist systems don’t exactly have unblemished records here. I also think it’s wrong to say that anyone participating in Empty Classroom Day – for instance – is thereby signing up to a corporate narrative on an issue. This gives corporates more power and influence than they actually have. Most would take a more pragmatic view and pick and choose how they engage.
    Declaration: I am working as a consultant with Unilever on Dirt is Good, and have worked with them on this and other campaigns over the years.

    • Richard says:

      Tim, Thanks for taking the time to comment and set out your views. I see contemporary capitalism as much as a culture as an economic system. The fact that it can do nothing but promote consumption and the myth of sustainable growth as well enforce and exacerbate inequality means that in my view we need to find a better way forward. The marketing industry is central to selling us that materialistic myth and so I felt the need to point out a few reasons why Unilever would want to get educators and activists involved in dirt is good. Education for sustainability must surely exist to shine a light on the possible structural reasons for the global social and environmental crisis we find ourselves in. I doubt I could really engage in critical pedagogy from a compromised position of participation. I don’t advocate any particular alternative socio-economic system but know that I cannot in good conscience partner with a company that exists purely for profit rather than for people. I don’t in any way mean to denigrate the views of yourself or others involved, just stating that mine differ.
      With respect for your work and best wishes,

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