Laundry Balls at UT

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Roahn H. Wynar

May 7, 1998, 3:00:00 AM5/7/98

HEB suckered in by Laundry Balls

Roahn Wynar

One of Austin's most deeply beloved institutions has been taken for a
ride. The only business that even Austin's notoriously liberal
white middle class would buy a shotgun to defend has been bamboozled by
a con. Yes, the HEB grocery chain flagship Central
Market is now selling "Laundry Balls."

If you are going to be conned, at least require the con artists to do
some work. Make them hire actors to play the part of a
"wealthy interested investor" or "renowned expert in the field." Force
them to open a phony warehouse full of empty boxes that
give the impression of tremendous inventory. Force them to have a
seamless, suspicion-free pitch that makes your eyes see dollar
signs and your blood boil with the kind of excitement that only the
soon-to-be-wealthy can feel.

Central Market did not make their con-person work very hard. The whole
scam must have gone down something like this:

The Pitchman: Tell your customers to forgo laundry detergent and to
simply put these three-inch Laundry Balls into their wash
instead. Tell them that the Laundry Balls will clean, soften and
protect colors.

Central Market Buyer: Great Idea, here's a check.

The Pitchman: Wait a sec. Aren't you going to ask me how they work?
I've created an explanation I was hoping to fool you into

Central Market Buyer: OK, how do they work?

The Pitchman: A special molecular process.

Central Market Buyer: Wow! An SMP?!

The Pitchman: Yep, and they create hydrogen and oxygen ions to increase
the solubility of the water.

Central Market Buyer (suddenly very stern and serious): Wait a second,
hydrogen and oxygen ions? Won't those ions hurt the
Barton Springs salamander?

The Pitchman: Absolutely not! Mystical, magical, wonderful Laundry
Balls are environmentally friendly and hypoallergenic to boot!

Central Market Buyer (relieved): That's great. I would like to buy a
hundred boxes of Laundry Balls, please. Soon all of Austin
will be detergent-free. Long live the Barton Creek salamander!

Everything about Laundry Balls should have made Central Market
suspicious. There is no company address on the box. They use
scientific language entirely out of context. They make incredible
claims. The Laundry Ball even came with a little video promotion
to appease incredulous Central Market customers who might ask really
hard questions. Questions like: "What the hell is in a
Laundry Ball?"

Investigating Laundry Balls, we find that they are typically sold
through multilevel marketing, another clue that Laundry Balls are
absolute junk. Laundry Balls come from different manufacturers, but all
have more or less the same script. They do something
clever to the wash that involves "structured water" or "far-infrared
electromagnetic waves" or "smaller molecular clusters" --
apparantly, the Laundry Ball turns ordinary water into the equivalent
of Tide. This tripe hasn't fooled the justice departments of
Utah and Oregon. Laundry ball manufacturers were forced to settle
consumer protection cases, paying out more than $100,000.

Dozens of bogus gimmicks are on the market that play to the "we did
something special to the water" theme, including magnetic
water treatments for shower heads and homeopathy, a medical fraud based
on water having a mystical "memory." Central Market
has fallen into the dumbest of them all though. My God, the Laundry
Ball is laughable.

The Laundry Ball is capitalizing on the fact that detergent, while
helpful, improves washing only marginally above hot water and
agitation. The success of the Laundry Ball is an example of an
"attention-focusing delusion." When people look closely at
something commonplace for the first time, certain details seem amazing.
In this case the commonplace event is cleaning clothes,
and the amazing fact is that it works to some extent without detergent.
Either that or the Laundry Ball is truly a mystical, magical,
wonderful little friend.

Wynar is a graduate student in physics.

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