Traumafession:: Senski on Zest Soap’s Living Lather

Well, I’ve done it, fellow KinderCats and KinderKittens; I have found what I believe to be my earliest childhood trauma inspired by the media, going all the way back to when I was three or four. This required a bit of YouTube digging, but at long last it has been exhumed. It’s pretty silly, but for my parents, this one was oft-mentioned to friends.

From a very early age, my folks took pride in my fondness for scary stuff. This was linked with my early ability to read, and since I was a straight A student, they saw no problem with encouraging my macabre tastes. Typical parental bragging would usually ensue, but it was frequently linked with this observation:

“And to think that when he was a baby he was scared of a commercial for Zest soap!”

It was true. I was a pretty placid little kid, but during the handful of times this spot hit the airwaves, I would cry like the hordes of Hell had been unleashed against me:

To me this is a kindertrauma in the purest sense of the concept – an otherwise innocuous something that, for whatever reason(s), pushes buttons that set off a chain reaction of fear. Seen in retrospect over four decades later, it has absolutely no similar effect, but it’s easy for me to identify three elements that came together to make this commercial terrifyingly toxic to my very young sensitivities:

1) Bars of soap should not unwrap themselves. I was three, what did I know of the world? Was this something that could happen anytime to the bars we would pass in the supermarket aisle? Or even worse, to the ones Mom kept in the hallway closet? And once unwrapped, could said bars…

2) produce lather that was ALIVE? Those suds were out to get me, and I’m pretty certain I associated lather with getting it in my eyes and stinging like hell. Stephen King has often remarked that the purest form of a monster is that of the blob – mindless, hungry, consuming anything in its path. Some primal fear was resonating here, people. But the worst of all by far was…

3) The voice. That “…ooooOOOOH” grows out of nowhere as the soap exudes from the unwrapped bar, the sound made by ghosts, the wordless siren-song of all things spooky. (I’ll even go so far as to assume that as a child I thought the female singer was dead, spectral; after all, we couldn’t see her, right?) She has the oversold quality that’s common to 50s and early 60s singers of being just a bit too emotive, too enthused about that shampoo lather. I think it’s something David Lynch nails whenever he employs music from this period. Hearing it now, I recognize that “voodoo lounge” quality to the melody that was popular at the time. Plus, the tune is neither major nor minor but modal, a relative rarity in pop music that makes it more eerie and exotic.

I’ve found a couple of other Zest ads from subsequent years that use that four-note “Oooh, what lather” motif, so this commercial must have done its job at branding. But none of them had the effect this one had upon me. It was my first clue in life that I was hardwired to detect the horrible and the haunted.

And to answer the obvious question: Yes, I occasionally use Zest.

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9 years ago

Oh my! This is the first time in MONTHS I’ve been able to log in! All other tries no matter what I did would not work!

I can’t think of any commercials that scared me, but apparently as a toddler I was terrified of windshield wipers. Whenever it was raining and we were in the car I’m told I was scream and cry the entire time they were running.

9 years ago

Scarier to me than the egg with the knife was the Bacon Snake! (Coming soon to SyFy.)

Also, why did Charlie the Tuna so desperately want to die? Talk about issues…

9 years ago

I’ll always remember, “You’re not fully clean until you’re Zest-fully clean!”

Irish Spring is a whole other matter! That stuff made my skin sticky!

Great post!