Fifty years ago, Charmin bathroom tissues struck gold by launching TV spots in which the prissy grocer Mr. Whipple scolded his customers for squeezing the Charmin, only to be exposed for sneaking a pleasure-filled squeeze himself behind the display case.
The "squeeze" was likely code for a certain bodily function, making Charmin all the bolder for ushering in a new era of breakthrough advertising for such once-taboo products as laxatives, toilet bowl cleaners, hemorrhoid suppositories and even tampons, at the time disguised as feminine hygiene aids.
Mr. Whipple and even the jaunty Ti-D-Bol Man would surely croak if they heard what Charmin—owned by Procter & Gamble—was up to today. And you can forget the code. P&G has "rolled out" a brash musical campaign themed around the brand’s current—if somewhat clunky—tagline: "We all go, why not enjoy the go?"
Using an up-tempo mix of hip-hop, R&B and American Idol tropes, Charmin’s new 30-second spots feature such startling lyrics as "You're my Number 1, when I go Number 2" and "You’re a lean, clean, wiping machine." Or there’s this catchy ode: "Charmin—you clean so well, my bum can tell." My favorite features a sultry woman’s voice soulfully describing where she spends some quality time: "My throne, it’s where I talk on the phone—it’s where I feel at home."
The songs—created by Publicis Kaplan Thaler along with music production house Butter Music + Sound—were recently posted on You Tube and have been dropped onto iTunes radio. They’re so well-crafted, infectious and authentically pop that many listeners may be unaware that they’re bopping to a very slick form of native advertising.
From a brand positioning perspective, these ditties may well be brilliant, especially alongside Charmin’s concurrent marketing and PR campaigns, including a series of video vignettes dubbed Conflushables (think Modern Family à la commode) a coupon and sweepstakes site called The Relief Project ("We’re starting a movement!") and yes, a hyperactive Twitter feed called “Tweets from the Seat.”
How far we’ve come from the days when Psychology Today magazine famously asked potential subscribers in a classic direct marketing pitch, "Do you close the bathroom door even when you’re the only one home?" Not only has Charmin flung open the doors, it’s invited the whole world to join in the experience. On its Facebook page, the brand touts 805,000 "likes."
Charmin is hardly the only marketer to have shed its inhibitions. Rival Cottonelle (Kimberly-Clark) is running full-page magazine ads touting the benefits of combining its toilet paper with its flushable cleansing cloths. "Just like bum cheeks, TP and wipes are meant to go together," runs the headline. For those who feel the need to go even deeper, Cottonelle invites readers: "Let's talk bums on Facebook." Anti-diarrheal medication Imodium has inspired countless YouTube parodies of its commercials highlighting the more awkward moments of having a sore tummy— like the astronaut stuck on a launch pad or the guy sitting in a hot tub with his pals. Then, there’s Axe shower gel—liquid soap in a bottle whose commercials about cleaning a sack of dirty soccer balls are basically soft porn.
To anyone raised in the Mr. Whipple era, these ads may seem beyond the pale. Yet, have you watched prime time lately? Fox’s Family Guy is an orgy of toilet talk that would make Mel Brooks squeamish. A random flip to popular programs like Big Bang Theory or Cougartown invariably finds the characters dropping blunt sexual references. I wander into our living room to see Neil Patrick Harris, the star of How I Met Your Mother, pretending to apply jumper cables to his crotch as a way to rev up his evening’s carousing. My jaw drops, while my 15-year-old son is in stitches. Of course, he is a big fan of the new Charmin jingles.
P&G well understands this connection between entertainment content and marketing and is taking advantage of all available channels to create interest around a highly commoditized product. That includes reaching audiences formerly oblivious to brand loyalty for bathroom tissue. Well into my 20s, I was still in the habit of stealing toilet paper from work, so insulted by the idea of having to buy such a utilitarian staple. Today, I’d probably succumb to Charmin’s shrewd pitch to get me to pay more for its thicker ply. As one of the Charmin singers puts it (you’ll have to imagine the hard techno-pop beat here), its tissue is so strong and absorbent, "I’m never a mess—I can use up to four times less!" Or maybe the jock in me would be inspired by Charmin’s finish line push, "Goin’ strong to the bowl."
Any middle-aged person shocked by the overtness of Charmin’s ads should ask themselves if they remember "It’s a Gas." In 1963, just as longtime character actor Dick Wilson was being cast to play Mr. Whipple (he went on to appear in more than 500 Charmin commercials), Mad magazine inserted a floppy acetate recording in each issue in which a tame rock-and-roll riff was loudly punctuated at the end of every measure by the sound of a man (presumably the impish Alfred E. Neuman) burping. My parents were appalled by "It’s a Gas," while my friends and I thought it was genius. Thus was the style of native advertising a half-century ago.
The one glitch in Charmin’s new spots is that the songs don’t quite fit with the big blue bears P&G currently uses as the warm and fuzzy face of the brand. Certainly this is no time to bring back Mr. Whipple, who was retired in 1985. But if Miley Cyrus is looking for a way to monetize her twerking videos, she might want to get behind—or in front of—Charmin’s roll-out.
Allan Ripp is principal of Ripp Media, a press relations firm in New York.