• 03.22.16

Children Spend Less Time Outdoors Than Prisoners, According To New Persil Ad

The Unilever brand dramatically declares that outdoor play is under threat.

Children Spend Less Time Outdoors Than Prisoners, According To New Persil Ad

Prisoners in maximum-security jails spend more time outdoors than the average child, according to Unilever detergent brand Persil.


New spot “Free the Kids” goes inside Indiana’s Wabash Maximum Security Prison to talk to inmates about what their time outdoors means to them. One responds, “It’s everything.” When they’re told the average child has just one hour outside per day, they react with dismay. Even though the lives of children and prisoners aren’t exactly comparable, the point is made.

Persil, known in many markets including the U.S. as Omo, has championed the idea of encouraging kids to play outdoors under its “Dirt is Good” marketing strategy for more than a decade. The brand’s global equity director, James Hayhurst says that an “astonishing” article last year that outlined the prisoners-versus-children claim was the “very mobilizing” catalyst for the new campaign. Prompted by that article, Unilever commissioned an independent global study of 12,000 parents to establish the facts. “Sadly, it is true,” says Hayhurst. “Although parents recognize and value the importance of play, a variety of factors such as lack of time, lack of safe places to play, and time spent on scheduled activities, combine to limit how much time kids spend playing.”

Over the years, “Dirt is Good” campaigns have, in general, focused on the joy of kids being allowed to get themselves filthy from head to foot during play. The original positioning was based on the insight that adults had fears around allowing their children to play outdoors freely, and was intended to reassure parents and help them encourage freethinking, creative (and mucky) play. “Free the Kids”, created by agency MullenLowe, takes this central premise but expresses it in a totally different way.

“We are intentionally highlighting the statistic that we have found: that prison inmates, the people with the least freedom in the world, spend more time outside than children spend outside playing today,” says Hayhurst. “Parents around the world are telling us that it [the film] has a profound impact on them. The film makes them think about ways to get their children outside more, which is exactly the point.”

Over the last decade, children’s play has become increasingly digitized. While it is generally agreed there are many benefits to children’s use of technology, almost eight out of ten parents (78%) who took part in the study, said their children often refuse to play without some form of technology being involved. A similar number (80%) reported their child prefers to play virtual sports on a screen inside rather than actual sports outside. Although technology is not the sole culprit, it is the overall decline in time spent outdoors that this latest iteration of “Dirt is Good” is aiming to address.

“We want to start a movement,” says Hayhurst. “The purpose of the film is to draw attention to the statistics and provoke conversation on the topic. We want to hear from parents, educators, and experts. How can we address this imbalance and give children more opportunities to play?”

About the author

Louise Jack is a London-based journalist, writer and editor with a background in advertising and marketing. She has written for several titles including Marketing Week, Campaign and The Independent.