Dettol and Media Terror – an OCD perspective


As someone with contamination-type OCD, it doesn’t take much for something small to sew a seed of doubt which, with the passing of time and obsessive rumination, becomes an instrument of fear, rendering me genuinely frightened and afraid. As such, at times of high anxiety, I tend to avoid any kind of exposure to media (TV, film, news articles) that might exasperate my fears. For example, despite the fact that it is one of my favourite films, I have not been able to bring myself to watch Philadelphia (the 1993 film starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington) since long before my diagnosis, simply because there is a scene that acts as a trigger for my own anxieties. The distress it causes means it is just not worth it. Similarly, I can’t watch anything relating to HIV/AIDS and I find myself switching channels during any kind of cleaning type show that seeks to glorify obsessive cleaning behaviour: How Clean Is Your House? Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, Your Hotel Room Will Kill You etc. Okay, I made that last one up, but you get the idea.

It is because I am perhaps overly sensitive to themes relating to germs and various illnesses, that I can get very annoyed (read angry) when I come across some spectacularly irresponsible (read stupid) marketing campaigns. Step forward Dettol and its ‘No Touch Hand System’, a soap dispenser that senses hand movement and dispenses the soap, without any need for the user to touch the dispenser itself. Let me be clear, I have contamination-type OCD – I once convinced myself that the red sauce on a pizza could potentially be contaminated with blood; several months ago I threw away an actual bike because I thought it was contaminated and could, therefore, kill me – and yet I can see through the bullshit of this.

Aside from the contradiction of its own campaign (our product kills 99.9% of bacteria, but we’re not quite sure about what’s lurking on your hands, so we’d better not let you touch it), marketing of this kind is just fucking dangerous. Yes, I get that you are trying to sell something. Yes, I know that there is a marketing premise that dictates that you must create a problem to then provide a product-based solution. But with this campaign, Dettol has gone too far, and Dettol is not alone. How many times have I seen adverts for germ-assassinating sprays/wipes/soaps that paint a picture of their product as the only thing that stands between you and the annihilation (via household germs) of your entire family?

Everything in these adverts, from the chilling horror-movie music and its accompanying sinister lighting, to the personification of evil germ-creatures (contrasted nicely with the innocence of children playing in the background), suggests that an Armageddon is lurking just round the corner if you fail to buy this product. As a marketing tool, it’s an absolute coup: the underlying message here (which is, interestingly, nearly always targeted at women/mothers) is that you alone are responsible for protecting your family against impending doom, and that only by buying our product will you be able to safeguard against the (always) 99.9% of all germs ever. Talk about pressure.

 So, onto the underlying argument or ‘logic’ of the Dettol campaign in question, the ‘No Touch Hand System’: you must wash your hands using our product (interestingly labelled a ‘system’, in order to perpetuate its own underlying myth of logic and science), because our product will keep you safe. Our product will prevent the aforementioned annihilation of your family. Use it, bathe in it, but be sure not to come into contact with the bottle that sources it, because that right there is a hotbed of disease and viruses. Hold on, Dettol, just hold on. You just told me that your product is basically a super-product that will save the world, and yet you cannot guarantee that it will kill the germs lurking on its dispensing spout? Would you care to rethink the claims that you make about the apparent superpowers of your own product, this apparent ‘system’ of protection?

Of course, I am exaggerating for effect (just like you, Dettol), and that’s because irresponsible marketing pisses me off. It’s because irresponsible marketing like this goes beyond the trickery of everyday advertising, relying as it does on the creation of a genuine fear in the mind of the viewer. Worse still, it relies upon the explicit manipulation of the public’s perception of danger. I can see through the absolute hokum of this, but not everyone will be able to. And that’s not because I am smarter, more intelligent or more resistant to media terror (I am not either of these things, and I freely admit that I have been at the mercy of the terror on many occasions), but because I am lucky to see it for what it is. Perhaps I was just having a good OCD day when I saw the advert for the first time. But that will not always be the case.

The danger is that someone somewhere will see this advert and – make no mistake – it will plant a seed of genuine fear in their mind. Speak to people with anxiety based disorders and so often will they tell you that the trigger of their anxieties was something that, to most people, seemed harmless and small. Too often, it only takes something that is so seemingly insignificant to tip that balance, to awaken an otherwise dormant volcano. Once that damage is done, you will have a hard task trying to reverse it before the fear engraves itself upon the thought processes of that person’s mind.

I am in no way suggesting that Dettol is triggering anxiety disorders across the population of Britain. No. Anxieties of all kinds sit within a complex spectrum of illness, with many causes and many manifestations. I am no expert – I am no psychiatrist, psychologist nor scientist. But I sit within the spectrum, and it infuriates me beyond words to see large well-known companies like Dettol acting in a way that is so careless and devoid of consideration for the public, a public comprised of human beings like you and me. I am also not blaming Dettol for seeking to maximise its profit margins with new and elaborate campaigns such as this – its business is profit and profit alone, its goal is to make money, first and foremost (despite the well-chiselled image as gatekeeper of our home and health).

What I am doing is asking the likes of Dettol et al to think. Just think before you make the claims that you make, think before you market your product, think before you choose to sew a seed of fear that is not only unnecessary but is also illogical and potentially dangerous. The question is: for however many units that Dettol sells as a result of marketing campaigns like the ‘No Hands Touch System’, how many of those are being sold as a result of little else but a commercially constructed fear? And is this right?


2 thoughts on “Dettol and Media Terror – an OCD perspective

  1. Love that rant – may I call it a rant? How about an extremely logical, well-written, rant? I agree with almost everything you had to say, and here’s one that will really get ya; I just saw an ad on TV for a toilet that flushes without having to be touched!!!!!! You just wave your hand over the top of it, and it flushes….OMG! I also have germ/contamination ocd, so I agree that Dettol is selling fear, and it is not right, (and it’s downright frustrating to those of us with germ ocd – we don’t need anymore reasons to avoid the germs we already fear)!!!!! Ugh!


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