The Soft Sell
When it comes to marketing toilet paper, cuteness is key.
Dirty Furniture Issue 3/6 – Toilet
Dirty Furniture is an independent design magazine that focuses on the relationship between people and the things they live with, or what happens “when design leaves the showroom.” Conceived as a finite series of six, each issue takes a piece of furniture as its theme and uses it as a springboard to explore topics spanning politics, design, history, technology, psychology, manufacturing, art – and the plain weird. I love both the premise and the working procedures of this magazine. When the editors (Elizabeth Glickfield and Anna Bates) commissioned me to write this piece, for example, they not only described in detail the topic and some possible angles they thought I could bring; but also supplied me with a PDF of the visual research they had already conducted. Once I had written the article, they worked with me to hone my argument and subjected each word choice to scrutiny. This level of editing rigor always makes a piece better, but is unfortunately rather unusual in publishing, where rushed schedules, on the one hand, or too much deference to the academic blind peer reviewing process, on the other, get in the way of good editing.
“Our brand of toilet paper is the softest,” each pastel-hued heat-printed package cajoles us: See how this baby duck has chosen to nest among our absorbent, aloe-infused multi-ply sheets, or how that koala cub hugs our huggable roll instead of its mother, and observe this little puppy having the time of its life unravelling our quilted roll around the house.
The hope is that these images will befuddle us sufficiently to prevent us from considering the lack of any real technological innovation in toilet paper over the past 120 years, and to postpone any self-reflection on what we are actually doing with it, which is far from nesting in it, seeking emotional comfort in its embrace, or, unfurling it along the corridor, but rather using it to wipe away excess urine and faeces from our perineal and anal regions.
Anthropologist Mary Douglas writes, “Reflection on dirt involves reflection on the relation of order to disorder, being to non-being, form to formlessness, life to death.” Toilet paper, just one of the many products we use to erase or disguise the smell, sight and touch of excremental dirt, contrives—through the design of its packaging—to distract us from any such reflection. The packages conjure purifying imagery, ranging from the celestial to the cute, in order to imaginatively transport us away from the facts of our daily deposits of water, inorganic salts, hormones, metabolites, bacterial biomass, protein, carbohydrate, undigested plant matter, fat, calcium and iron phosphates, intestinal secretions, dried epithelial cells, and mucus. Blue cumulus cloud-strewn skies elevate us from the baseness of our digestive tracts and from the bowels of the earth where sewers are. Kittens, puppies and bear cubs take us back in time, away from the adult responsibilities of personal hygiene and thoughts of death, to the innocent freedom of pre-sphincter-control infancy.
The packages conjure purifying imagery, ranging from the celestial to the cute, in order to imaginatively transport us away from the facts of our daily deposits of water, inorganic salts, hormones, metabolites, bacterial biomass, protein, carbohydrate, undigested plant matter, fat, calcium and iron phosphates, intestinal secretions, dried epithelial cells, and mucus.
Once here, of course, it’s hard to avoid Freud. According to his psychosexual development theory, between the ages of around eighteen months and three years (the time of toilet training) the human infant’s libido is concentrated in the erogenous zone of the anus. For the child, the anal product becomes symbolic and may be used for play, as a gift, a weapon or as property. When this anal stage comes to an end, so Freud’s theory goes, the symbolism originally attached to the anal product gets attached to other non-bodily objects, and ultimately continues repressed in the subconscious. Indeed, the connection between anal retentiveness and a preoccupation with property ownership, for example, recalls the phenomenon of hoarding, illustrated most dramatically (and appropriately in this instance) on episodes of cable network TLC’s reality television show “Extreme Couponing,” where people stockpile up to forty years worth of toilet paper in their closets.
The toilet product industry takes the two-ply social pressure of hygiene and convention and packages it into new, multi-billion-dollar-generating combinations, the latest of which is the moist toilet tissue. Wipes, made of long synthetic or cotton fibres moistened with water or other liquids like isopropyl alcohol, and lotion, were invented in the late 1950s, became a common means of dealing with dirty babies’ bottoms by the early 1990s and then began gaining popularity as a product for all the family and not just babies around 2010. The most extreme efforts to rebrand the product are in the male market group, perhaps because of an enduring physical issue noted in 1564 by satirist Francois Rabelais that “Who his foul tail with paper wipes, Shall at his ballocks leave some chips.”
Among the many new male-oriented products are One-Wipe-Charlies—peppermint-scented, packaged in a metallic-coloured plastic pouch, and, according to one of the product’s 1,870 reviews, are “like wiping your fanny with silk, but far less messy,”—and Dude Wipes, which are encased in black condom-wrapper-like packages, with an industrial-techno logo. The straightforward and irreverent tone of their advertising targets frat boys interested in salvaging what the Dude Wipes founders call “stanky” situations.
Unfortunately, the growing use of wipes is creating its own “stanky” situation. Most wipes have long synthetic fibres that, once flushed, do not break down in water and accumulate problematically in our sewage systems creating what The New York Times graphically referred to as “dank clusters.” In 2013 the world’s largest recorded “fatberg”—a grotesque-sounding ten-tonne, bus-sized lump of fat and so-called “flushable” wipes—was found in a London sewer and took three weeks to be dismantled.
As toilet roll sales in the West begin to plateau, their manufacturers are finding ways to sell both toilet paper and toilet tissue wipes as a two-step process. In 2012 Kimberly-Clark began encouraging consumers to use the company’s dry and moist toilet paper products in combination (and to come up with a term—such as “Southern Hospitality” and “Clean Getaway”—for doing so). Currently they are advocating the process through a #GoCommando campaign targeting summer festival-goers, who have the opportunity, thanks to Cottonelle, to “achieve a higher state of confidence.”
Similarly, British firm Andrex, which launched moist toilet tissues as early as 1992, is now marketing what they call the Andrex Clean Routine to parents and kids using endorsements by psychologists and downloadable star charts. The Clean Routine recommends the use of three to four sheets of toilet paper per wipe, followed by the application of one to two sheets of moist toilet tissue, and a final patting dry with another wad of toilet roll. Any household with small children will surely find this added five-step routine to be an extra and unnecessary social pressure, and ultimately more cumbersome than relieving.
As literary theorist and sociologist Roland Barthes observed of 1950s French commercial culture, manufacturers of cleaning products need to plant the idea of dirtiness as a social evil in order that they can sell the remedy. In his article “Sapanoids and Detergents,” he identified differences in the marketing of various soap powders and detergents. Some, like Persil, based their marketing on the evidence of a result: the presentation of a piece of laundry which is “whiter,” and therefore superior, appealed to vanity and social prestige. Others, like Omo, emphasised the process of cleaning: they attempted to engage the consumer in what Barthes described as “a sort of experiential mode of substance,” implicating him/her as “the accomplice of deliverance.”
Today’s toilet products show the same variations in marketing. When buying toilet tissue we are presented with the idea that its application will result in our anus being rendered as clean as a newborn koala’s; the imagery used to sell toilet cleaner, however, invites the consumer to participate in the cleaning process via depictions of magic wands, sudsy bubbles, and gels, which produce such dazzlingly blue, light-suffused sparkling vortexes of cleanliness we are almost tempted to dive in after them.
There is a preponderance of swirls, stylised banners, festoons, curves and swooshes evoking a stream of toilet paper flowing in the wind, one supposes, as well as the ensuing imagined caress of the tissue on one’s skin, or the hoped-for smoothness of one’s evacuation.
The softness-, cleanliness-evoking toilet roll brand names such as Purex, Cushelle, Velvet, White Cloud, and Quilted Northern, are rendered on their packaging, unsurprisingly, in white, puffy flowing type. The backgrounds tend to be gradated pastel-hued floral hazes, the visual equivalent of generic elevator Muzak. There is a preponderance of swirls, stylised banners, festoons, curves and swooshes evoking a stream of toilet paper flowing in the wind, one supposes, as well as the ensuing imagined caress of the tissue on one’s skin, or the hoped-for smoothness of one’s evacuation.
But these graphics also continue a trend observed by design historians Abbott Miller and Ellen Lupton in their seminal book on the evolution of American kitchen and bathroom design between 1890 and 1940, The Bathroom, the Kitchen and the Aesthetics of Waste (1997), which is that “the aesthetics of waste is streamlined.” The metaphor of streamlining invokes a body moving efficiently through fluid; but it can also refer to the acceleration of the cycle of purchase and disposal so essential to modern capitalist economics. Lupton and Miller write, “The policy of ‘planned obsolescence’ pictured the economy itself as a ‘body’ whose health depends on a continual cycle of production and waste, ingestion and excretion.” Advertising provides a vital and “lubricating” role (as Lupton and Miller aptly put it) in hastening that cycle of mass distribution, a “laxative for hastening the flow of goods through the economy.”
Toilet paper, like a tissue or sanitary pad, is the poster child for disposable mass culture. Utterly expendable, its sole function is to be used up and discarded. It is a “physical and symbolic” consumable, as design critic Reyner Banham put it in 1963, referring to the list of items the character Lolita gathers to soothe and normalise her disturbing way of life, and that Vladimir Nabakov uses to stand in for mass-produced American modernity in his novel: “In the gay town of Lepingville I bought her four books of comics, a box of candy, a box of sanitary pads, two cokes, a manicure set…a portable radio, chewing gum….” Yet paper was used for anal and perineal cleansing many hundreds of years prior to industrialised mass production, in early medieval China. The scholar-official Yan Zhitui acknowledged both the practice and his respect for literature in 589 AD, when he wrote, “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.”
Rural Americans in the 1800s seem to have had a similarly refined view of what made toilet-appropriate paper. Before the widespread marketing of paper tissue specifically for use in the toilet, many families used pages torn from the Sears and Roebuck mail-order catalogue in their outhouses. Some catalogues even had a hole in the corner so they could be hung on a nail near the toilet. The use of the catalogue declined in the 1930s when Sears began printing on glossy, clay-coated paper, which made it less absorbent. In the UK too, toilet paper’s heritage is linked to advertising. In her memoir of a 1920s childhood, Diana Holman-Hunt recalls being asked by her grandmother to cut a stack of “circulars, envelopes and paper bags” into squares for use in the toilet. She writes: “When I had cut a hundred sheets, I pierced their corners and threaded them with a string; I tied this in a loop to hang on a nail by the ‘convenience.’ I made a mental note of the softer pieces and put them together in the middle, between the back of a calendar from Barkers and an advertisement for night-lights.”
While early flush toilets, increasingly common in wealthy American homes by the 1860s, were disguised and enclosed with cabinetry and built to resemble chairs, early mass-produced toilet paper was presented more explicitly. Gayetty’s Medicated Paper for the Water Closet, patented in 1857, was folded into sheets and sold in red-printed paper packages, and advertised in a New York Daily Tribune advertisement as “the greatest discovery of modern times so far as alleviating and preventing human suffering is concerned.” One can see a return to this Victorian apothecary aesthetic in the use of a hyperbolic verbal rhetoric, blocky letterpress and woodcuts, and type-only packaging designs in products aimed at the bearded hipster market, such as Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap products, Aesop-APC deodorising poo drops, and the Victorianesque fly transfer put in Schiphol airport urinals to increase better aiming and to reduce cleaning costs.
For, today, while those pastel petals and puppies still dominate the middle-market, there are distinct variations at either end of the toilet-roll and toilet-cleaning product spectrum: at the low end, value and bulk-buy brands are almost wilfully basic, with one-colour printing, bold sans serif typefaces, and nary a kitten nor a waterfall in sight; at the luxury end, indeed somewhere beyond it, you’ll find Joseph’s Toiletries, which sell for sixty euros per box of ribbon-tied, specially woven and vitamin-coated toilet tissues made of one-hundred percent tender virgin new-growth cellulose fibres, and which promises “profound softness,” when paired with a Gentle Cleanser made with Swiss glacier water and a Balancing Care moisturiser. This extravagant product assemblage is styled with quiet luxurious conservatism in gold and white, with centred serif type.
So what is it with all these bowers of fluffy clouds and equally fluffy baby animals? What is it with all this softness? It’s not biologically necessary; we used to use corn cobs, moss and stones, and in many countries a jug of water and the left hand suffice, and are considered far superior to smearing the dirt around with paper. But the hyperbolic softness does seem to be psychologically desirable. Global personal care brands have established toilet paper and its ilk as flattering to what Barthes characterised as “those obscure impulses of caressing envelopment.” It has transmogrified from its origins as wood shavings (indeed, early users often complained of finding splinters) and now makes us think of clouds, duckling down, cotton balls, and babies’ bottoms. The Charmin tagline introduced in 1956, “Charmin babies your skin,” seems, in retrospect to have signalled the current tendencies of toilet product packaging toward encouraging our infantile regressive impulses for comfort that we seek both in our hard, industrialised, and enamelled bathrooms, and in our hard, adult world.