Romancing the Throne: Why Cottonelle Thinks Toilet Paper Is Sexy

Last Updated Jan 23, 2011 10:02 PM EST

Kimberly-Clark (KC) just launched yet another salvo in the toilet paper wars and this one, disturbingly, takes a page out of the Viagra playbook. If you have not previously realized the connection between romance and bathroom tissue you'll be horrified to know that more of this nonsense is likely on the way: The giants of the TP category -- KC, Procter & Gamble (PG) and Georgia-Pacific -- are locked in an arms race to produce ever more explicit, and ever more disgusting, advertising for their products.

KC's new Cottonelle commercial -- by ad agency Tri3ect -- begins with a shot of a middle-aged woman sitting on the edge of her bed, a set-up that's familiar to anyone who's seen ads for KY liquid. She says:

When you've been together as long as we have things can get a bit routine. That's why I decided to switch things up -- with Cottonelle Ultra toilet paper.
Meanwhile her husband can be heard off-camera, exclaiming with guttural delight from the bathroom:
Oh yeah! ... Love it! ... Mina, get dressed -- we're going dancing!

If there were an acronym to express a combination of "WTF?" and "TMI," I would use it here.

This is not an isolated incident. Regular readers will remember it was KC that forced P&G to take down one of its "bears in the woods" ads in August 2010 because it made false claims about how much TP is "left behind" when you don't use P&G's Charmin. That Charmin campaign featured an extensive examination of a baby bear's butt, covered in errant wads of paper.

P&G, in fact, bears a great deal of responsibility for the scatological turn that the TP business has taken. Here's an old ad for Charmin from the 1960s. Note the merciful lack of references to what the product is actually used for:

Fast-forward to this century, and we find the Charmin bears -- an entire campaign based on a dirty joke about what ursines do in the woods -- have a toilet paper fetish. This ad had a Barry White theme, and begins with the male bear rubbing his face with Charmin while he sits on the can. The lyrics are:

Every time it's so right, it feels so good.
Once Papa Bear is done, he joins Mama bear in the living room where they cuddle up and rub TP all over each other. I am not making this up:

Georgia-Pacific has been dragged into this sewer too. Its most recent campaign for Quilted Northern vowed:

It's time to get real about what happens in the bathroom. Stop all the cutsie stuff, and talk about what you really want from your toilet paper.
Toilet paper has to help keep me clean while getting me clean.

(That last line seems to be suggesting that the brand has some sort of prophylactic effect between uses -- a nice idea of it weren't completely false.)

So why, exactly, is it "time to get real about what happens in the bathroom?" It's to do with that odd truism of American brand management: The more mundane the category, the fiercer the competition. We've seen similar viciousness between the advertisers of tampons, mayonnaise, soup, paper plates and -- my favorite -- lint rollers in the last year or two.

The specific problem in the TP category is that it's crowded -- KC, P&G and G-A operate the three premium brands but the store shelves groan under the weight of cheaper products and store brand generics. That ought to set the stage for a discount price war in which everyone races to the bottom (ouch!). But the Big Three of TP know that would be suicidal for margins, so they tacitly agree not to compete on price. They still have to compete, however, and the only other option is through aggressive advertising. Which is why you'll be well advised to visit the throne room yourself during TV ad breaks unless you want to see just how far the Charmin bears and the Cottonelle couple are going to go.