Corporate America knows we’re miserable. Is a toilet bomb the answer?

Clorox thinks it can help with a new toilet bomb, a tablet of pre-dosed cleaner that foams and fizzes in the toilet bowl and releases a pleasant scent. (Wall Street Journal)
Clorox thinks it can help with a new toilet bomb, a tablet of pre-dosed cleaner that foams and fizzes in the toilet bowl and releases a pleasant scent. (Wall Street Journal)

Summary

Light beer, air freshener, spicy pretzels: It’s all part of a marketing push to improve our mood.

Procter & Gamble, the company that pioneered consumer research a century ago, combs societal trends to select a scent of the year. This year, researchers at the maker of Tide, Bounty and Gillette determined that consumers craved more connection with each other, especially young adults who felt more disconnected in a postpandemic world increasingly shaped by technology.

So in January, P&G declared “Romance & Desire" its scent of the year, and bequeathed it to anxious Americans in the form of new Febreze air fresheners with a fragrance of pink rose petals and champagne spritz. The product line is intended to offer a sensory reminder of the importance of human connection, the company said.

The scent evokes memories and emotions, says Morgan Eberhard, a scientist with the company. Its goal, she says, is to “turn any night into a date night."

Across the consumer-products sector, the giant companies that study us in hopes of unearthing insights that can help them sell more potato chips, laundry detergent and lipstick, have reached a conclusion that economists and pollsters have also found: We are unhappy—squeezed by inflation, troubled by global conflicts and worried about an acrimonious presidential campaign season. The companies are calibrating their pitches to entice us to open our wallets as a way of improving our collective mood.

Clorox thinks it can help with a new toilet bomb, a tablet of pre-dosed cleaner that foams and fizzes in the toilet bowl and releases a pleasant scent. “People are looking for a spark of fun and joy," said Rhonda Lesinski, Clorox’s general manager of cleaning. “We all know the world can get messy, but we understand the link between a clean environment and one’s physical and emotional well-being."

As part of what Clorox calls a “consumer-obsessed" approach, staffers started using artificial-intelligence tools last year to scan digital media for new ideas. The Foaming Toilet Bomb, going on sale nationwide next month, is its first product from this initiative.

In recent months, the team noticed growing grumbles about cleaning the toilet, along with more social-media posts featuring autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR—a tingly feeling some feel when exposed to certain sounds—with amped-up sounds that are meant to be soothing. Some of these videos include the satisfying click when a box closes or the fizz of a bath bomb in a tub full of water, which was also an inspiration.  Its research showed that a clean space can increase focus, improve sleep, and reduce stress, the maker of bleach said.

Affordable treats

The brewer of Coors Light and Miller Lite sees stress in the air too, and thinks familiar old-fashioned beer commercials will meet the national moment.

“When people feel more complicated, when things feel more complicated in their everyday lives, there is something like a beer that feels like a simple joy and, really, an affordable luxury," said Sofia Colucci, chief marketing officer at Molson Coors. “We do believe that right now, humor is really important," along with nostalgia, she said.

In March, Miller Lite reintroduced its historic “Tastes Great, Less Filling" campaign. The ads—featuring a debate over Miller Lite’s best attribute—ran on and off for 15 years starting in 1975, when it helped introduce Americans to light beer. The new iteration includes appearances by actor Luke Wilson and retired sports stars J.J. Watt, David Ortiz, Jorge Posada, Reggie Miller and Mia Hamm.

The term “affordable treats" has become something of a mantra at PepsiCo, which makes Cheetos, Doritos and Lay’s potato chips. As soaring prices over the past two years have put pressure on shoppers’ wallets, PepsiCo executives have repeated the term over and over on calls with analysts. The company’s North American snacks business reported 7% revenue growth in 2023.

This year, the company is betting that consumers will start to emerge from their malaise—and reach for even more snacks. Recent product launches include Cheetos Pretzels Flamin’ Hot and an affordable-treat twofer: limited-edition popcorn flavored like chocolate-glazed doughnuts.

“We think consumers will continue to feel better throughout the year," Chief Executive Ramon Laguarta said in February on a conference call with analysts.

No longer in the top 20

U.S. consumer sentiment has improved since November but is still about 20% lower than before the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020. There is a sharp disconnect between the pessimism many Americans feel about the economy and measures that show the economy is actually robust. For example, in a recent Wall Street Journal poll of swing states, 74% of respondents said inflation has moved in the wrong direction in the past year, even though the rate of inflation has in fact moderated.

The U.S. last month fell off a list of the top 20 happiest countries compiled by the World Happiness Report. For the first time in more than a decade, Americans’ self-reported happiness dropped, in large part because of a decline in sentiment among younger adults. They report feeling hopeless as their budgets are squeezed and they feel increasingly lonely, lured by social media and the promise of contentment from material possessions, according to the report.

Some 95% of Americans say they are concerned about the rising cost of living, while 77%  are concerned about their access to basic necessities, according to a November EY study called Future Consumer Index 13. And yet, sales of products across many categories remain strong.

This year’s South by Southwest, the annual festival of tech, film and music in Austin, Texas, featured a panel discussion called “Building Brands in the Unhappiness Era." An executive at apparel company Spanx said the brand is focused on portraying women in a more realistic way than it had before.

Referring to what it’s like to be a woman juggling many roles in these times, Andrea Port, vice president of brand and integrated marketing at Spanx said: “Right now, we’re trying to survive and we’re not afraid to say that." Today, the woman Spanx is reaching is different than she was at the brand’s introduction 20 years ago, when women felt more confident and wanted to feel even more so, Port says.

Spanx now sells clothing made with soft materials in addition to firming shapewear, along with a new message. “It’s OK that your day is chaotic, but you can show up as your best self," she says. “You’re going to be like, ‘I got this.’ "

‘Goodbye, grumpy pants’

Craig Dubitsky came up with the idea of Happy coffee as the pandemic started to ebb. The consumer-products entrepreneur, who was a chief innovation strategist at Colgate-Palmolive and founder of an oral-care line called Hello, felt it was a moment that needed happiness.

“People are not all that happy. Coffee makes people happy," Dubitsky recalled thinking. “What if Happy made their coffee?"

He co-founded Happy coffee with the actor Robert Downey Jr. and launched the line of coffee pods, ground and instant coffee—emblazoned with uplifting messages like “you’ve so got this" and “goodbye, grumpy pants"—earlier this year. The two discussed emotionally aware approaches to reflect the fact that “not everyone is happy all the time."

The coffee’s packaging includes the number for a help line operated by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which was given an equity stake in the brand. “Together," the packaging proclaims, “we can make things better."

Write to Natasha Khan at natasha.khan@wsj.com and Jennifer Maloney at Jennifer.Maloney@wsj.com

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