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Suds for Drugs

While clothes were getting easier to clean, Americans were starting to own more of them. Today, journalist Elizabeth Cline reports in Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, the average U.S. consumer buys 68 pieces of clothing a year—more than one purchase a week—much of it cheaply made. Launder those items with Tide, and they take on a uniform smell and feel that consumers have come to associate with quality. “It doesn’t matter where the clothes come from, if you wash them with Tide, they do have almost this prestige wash to them,” says Maru Kopelowicz, a global creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, which researches consumer attitudes toward Tide as the brand’s lead advertising firm.

Procter & Gamble spends heavily on research and development to continually ­refine the sensory by-products of doing the laundry with its leading detergent. Tide’s original scent was “citruslike,” in the words of Sundar Raman, the marketing director of Procter & Gamble’s North American fabric-care division, but has evolved into a “citrus, floral, and fruity experience” with hints of lemon, orange, roses, lily, and apple. When combined in a complex perfume, these notes help cover up the odors of the cleaning agents that would otherwise waft out during the wash cycle. But P&G also chose each scent to do a specific job. The smell of citrus, for instance, has been shown to correlate strongly with perceptions of cleanliness. “That natural, fresh-and-clean smell is stimulating and creates an instantaneous mood of being happy,” says Craig Warren, a former researcher for the firm International Flavors & Fragrances who, until the late nineties, did work with P&G. Floral scents, for their part, have been known to evoke strong feelings of maternal love and kinship. (Home visits by Saatchi researchers have found that very ardent Tide fans sometimes carry bottles as if cradling a baby.) The goal of all these efforts is to turn clothes-washing into more than a to-do; it’s being a good parent, a good person. It’s a message that may also explain why among some lower-income shoppers, according a 2012 newsletter by branding agency Daymon Worldwide, “being able to afford Tide laundry detergent is seen as a sign of success.”

Once people pick a brand, their reasons for sticking with it are largely automatic. Read Montague is the director of the ­human-neuroimaging laboratory and ­computational-psychiatry unit at Virginia Tech’s Carilion Research Institute, where he studies how people choose and value products using an fMRI machine. When shoppers are exposed to a brand they identify with, their ventral medial prefrontal cortex lights up—the same part of the brain associated with reward recognition in drug users. That neural pathway may have helped our ancestors remember, say, which plants were safe to eat or when a tribal marking meant a clan was worth avoiding. In the modern age, we use the same circuitry as a shortcut for more mundane decisions. “As long as it keeps paying you back the same way,” Montague says, you buy the same brands. The feedback loop flashes: “It’s worth the money.”

The criminal cost-­benefit ­analysis of a bottle of Tide is more straightforward. Most of the people stealing the detergent, Sergeant Thompson points out, are the same criminals who used to break into houses or mug pedestrians—male addicts whose need to feed their habits can foster a kind of innovative streak. “They are smart. They are creative. They want high reward and low risk,” he says. Theft convictions can come with a maximum fifteen-year prison sentence, but the penalty for shoplifting is often just a small fine, with no jail time. For the most active thieves, says Thompson, stolen Tide has in some ways become more lucrative than the drugs it’s traded for. “It’s the new dope,” he says. “You can get richer and have less chance of doing jail time.”

For stores, stopping Tide shoplifting presents unique challenges. Most frequently stolen goods—GPS devices, smartphones, and other consumer electronics—are pricey, light, and easily concealed. They’re also not routine purchases, which means they can be locked up until buyers ask for them. Bulk goods like detergent are harder to run off with, but they’re also bought by dozens of customers daily—lock those products up, and a store manager adds more time to his customers’ errand runs, potentially sending them to shop elsewhere. “Any time you secure something, it impacts the sale of that item at some level,” says Jerry Biggs, the director of Walgreens’ Organized Retail Crime Division.

Nor is relying on clerks to head off suspected thieves a realistic option. Cashiers and stockists, working for low pay, are often disinclined to confront a potential criminal. “People at the cash register don’t stop you,” says one of Thompson’s informants, an ex-con who shoplifted for years. “They just let you go past.” What’s more, stolen bottles of Tide aren’t easily traceable. Many merchants don’t record the lot and batch numbers for most grocery-store products, because that takes precious man hours. And Procter & Gamble has not made its own database of that information publicly available. Some stores have tried attaching tracking stickers to bottles to establish their provenance, only to find that thieves just wash them off.