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Suds for Drugs

For its part, Procter & Gamble doesn’t seem overly concerned about the black-market popularity of its product. “It’s unfortunate that people are stealing Tide, and I don’t think it’s appropriate at all, but the one thing it reminds me of is that the value of the brand has stayed consistent,” says Raman, the marketing director. Now the company’s tactics for maintaining the brand’s premium status are evolving. One recent commercial for the detergent shows a young couple watching TV. The boyfriend mentions that his girlfriend wanted him to use Tide with Downey to make his shirts soft. The punch line: She’s fallen asleep on his stomach. “And was she right? The proof is in the snoring,” he says. That promotion, part of a campaign called MyTide, is emblematic of the way Tide’s target demographic has expanded since the brand’s inception. Tide isn’t just for stay-at-home moms anymore. It’s for single guys—and, as other commercials show, for a woman who wants to resurrect her “nasty, vile” old tennis shoes, or the parents of triplets, folding clothes in a crowded bedroom, who consider their kids “such a blessing” but “not financially,” or anyone looking to stretch their dollars. Says Kopelowicz of Saatchi & Saatchi: “Some people, just because they can’t afford Tide all the time, they might think the brand doesn’t understand you. Of course we understand you.”

Fashion trends might be ephemeral, but—if you buy into Tide’s branding efforts—clean clothes, no matter what kind of clothes they are, are essential to your well-being, or even to your sense of self-worth. “It makes you feel prepared, like your priorities are straight,” Kopelowicz says. It just happens that the high demand for Tide that message fuels also sustains criminal enterprises.

If all that makes Thompson’s job harder, he doesn’t blame Procter & Gamble. “I’m a No. 1 Tide fan,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s all psychological, but you can tell the difference.”