Adrian Lee is an editor in The Globe and Mail’s Opinion section.
For the past two-plus decades – more than half my life – I have smelled the same.
In the ripeness of my puberty, I started swearing by Old Spice’s Arctic Force deodorant: a fragrance that is citrusy and clean and a little bit musky, but with a surprising amber note that rounds and mellows over the course of a day. I didn’t have that language in my youth, of course – back then, I mostly remember smelling my friends’ Axe, the headache-inducing body spray that had all the nuance of napalm, and finding a kind of comfort in my fragrance.
Still, I use it to this day, and like Proust’s madeleine soaked in tea, this red-cased stick of unnaturally blue gel sometimes triggers memories of those days when I was more potential than outcome, when a few quick swipes would erase the chlorinated smell of a swim in my high school’s pool, or build reliable shields under my trembling arms as I asked someone to slow-dance.
The brand itself has evolved since those days, when Arctic Force was one of a smaller set of Old Spice offerings; today, it cranks out 26 mad-lib man-scents apparently dubbed by dartboard, producing thickly red-blooded names out of some combination of mythical beasts, geological formations and apex predators. But over the years, I let myself think that Old Spice and I might grow old and spicy together. Frankly, I got used to the privilege of not thinking about it at all.
But last year, I started noticing that it was consistently out of stock in Toronto’s drugstores. Eventually, a cashier mused that what I thought was a mere pandemic-related shortage was likely permanent. And then came the grim finality of a message telling me that, after nine months of multiple humiliatingly hopeful inquiries to Procter and Gamble’s general e-mail account, “the Old Spice Arctic Force Stick was discontinued, and it’s no longer available.” A spokesperson later told me that it was “not as popular as other scents in Canada” and that the company “wanted to make room for our newest innovations with improved formulas.”
Fair enough, my brain said. So why did this deodorant’s farewell to arms make my heart feel such a sense of personal loss – something even approximating grief?
Surely you jest, you may be saying. This is little more than an inconvenience, a bummer at best. And as it relates to Arctic Force, you’re probably even right. But we should name, as accurately as possible, the kind of loss many of us experience when something we rely on suddenly vanishes.
These are the symptoms of product discontinuation, a typically terminal condition that initiates a grief response all its own. First comes denial, and then desperation, as you scramble to see how large your hoard is, to palliatively prolong the inevitable. There is the pursuit of community, turning message boards and social media into funeral parlours for your fellow mourners. There is usually no closure, so there are pangs of lingering sadness for the last time you used the product without knowing the finality of the moment. And of course, there is the anger, the feeling of being betrayed by the giver who has now taketh away what feels like a part of you.
“Maybe it’s not a big deal because it’s just a brand. It’s not a real friend. But naming it as grief is useful because it’s a real feeling, and then people are able to understand what that destabilizing feeling is,” says Pankaj Aggarwal, a professor of marketing at the University of Toronto Scarborough. (He was so wounded when Tim Hortons discontinued its maple pecan danish that he doesn’t “feel like trying any other snack from them.”)
For many, the recent exits of iconic products from the Canadian market have triggered similar sensations. Last week, Kimberly-Clark announced that it would stop selling Kleenex tissues here, despite becoming eponymous for the entire category. In the months prior, Delissio frozen pizzas, Bugles corn snacks and Stouffer’s microwave dinners were among the items discontinued in Canada, too. These are things we have loved, and lost.
Sure, these are just products – but also, they’re not. They are building blocks to a life, especially when they’re the kinds of things that we rely on over and over again in our day-to-day, and when we find the product that’s right for our lives, it feels like a validation, bringing the comfort that comes with being seen. It’s simple psychology: Leon Festinger’s seminal work on cognitive dissonance sets out that people, fundamentally, are stability-seeking animals. And this desire for stability, built on foundations of routine and ritual, is all the more intense in an increasingly complicated world, and a packed marketplace where the “newest innovations” beg for your attention.
“People surround themselves with brands they feel at home with. People perhaps feel that if they have those objects around them, it’s a symbol that everything is okay,” says Carlene Higgins, a former beauty editor for Flare magazine and the co-host of the Breaking Beauty podcast (who longs for the return of Prescriptives Custom Blend foundation).
Nowhere is this cycle of mourning more common than in Ms. Higgins’s world, where cosmetics come and go or get reformulated beyond recognition. It has become a rite of passage to lose a beauty product that you thought was your perfect match, and engage in the onerous, risky task of finding something else. That frustration is so pervasive that whole companies have emerged to source and sell liquidated merchandise: Discontinued Beauty, which promises to keep you “connected to your favourite beauty products,” as if bridging the river Styx so you can reach into Hades, sells more than US$130,000 in products a year, with customers leaping at the opportunity to resuscitate what they thought had flatlined forever. “They feel cheated. They’re always so disappointed with why the companies discontinue these items,” says owner Daneen Woolstrum (whose white-whale product is Graham Webb’s Bodacious perfume). “And that’s when they really try to latch onto them and try to acquire what they can, while they have time.”
Of course, companies don’t owe us these products, nor their continued availability. If demand is low, if stock is taking up valuable warehouse real estate, if a price point becomes unrealistic to maintain because of the labour or the raw ingredients required to make it, if those ingredients are restricted in some way by governments’ ever-evolving regulations, or if the businesses themselves shutter or are sold – of course their offerings will change. We can’t expect any company to act outside of its own narrow interest: feeding the impassive maw of the god of long-term growth.
But it’s certainly not our fault that these products embed themselves so profoundly into our lives. The discontinuation of Bugles led fans to beg General Mills not to ruin their traditional Christmastime “reindeer food” snack mix; the loss of Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese prompted heartbreak over childhood sick days and parents’ anxieties over putting a quick meal on the table. These, more than anything, are the things being lost. Why wouldn’t these losses be legitimate, and worth grieving? After all, even the pharaohs wanted to take their stuff with them when they died.
What we can blame companies for is how zealously they have cultivated these personal connections with their customers in pursuit of all-important brand loyalty. Millions of dollars are poured into positioning brands as members of families, insinuating them as indispensable parts of our lives. Ads and packaging are finely tuned to create intimate connections with consumers, right down to scent agencies creating perfumes for stores to target the brain’s amygdala in the name of “bottling memories.” Consumers are microtargeted so that a company can claim to understand them deeply, sometimes even manufacturing problems that didn’t exist so it can provide a solution. Loyalty may be a deeply human quality, but it has become the sine-qua-non pursuit of modern capitalism.
Making an emotional connection can be dangerous for a relationship that is ultimately one-sided, however. These company-customer bonds are, in the words of Prof. Aggarwal, “communal” – premised on the psychological idea that there is interest in each party’s welfare – as opposed to unemotional, transactional “exchange” relationships. The trouble comes when the norms governing these relationships become confused and inconsistently applied by companies and customers alike. “If a company creates that expectation of communality, and then changes the terms of the psychological contract, that’s a problem,” he says. “That’s almost a breach of relationship, if I implicitly or explicitly tell you that I’m there for you forever and then say, ‘Hey, you know what? I’ve changed my mind.’ "
So if brands really want to start relationships, they need to be human. “When people form relationships with brands, it’s as if that relationship is similar to their interpersonal ones. And if that’s the case, then companies should use what we think is the right way to behave in an interpersonal relationship, when they’re interacting with friends,” Prof. Aggarwal says. Too few companies do this, though, electing to issue vague statements or simply disappear the products instead of maintaining their relationships and at least communicating clearly through a breakup, to offer some closure.
As for me, closure is some distance away. I know that nothing in this life is forever, but my reaction to Procter and Gamble’s confirmation of Arctic Force’s demise would embarrass even the most inveterate doomsday preppers: I have accumulated about 25 sticks from six different stores. And armed with my refusal to investigate the rate at which deodorant degrades, I hope to stretch my supply for as long as I can – and stave off the end, just a little longer, one swipe at a time.