Toilet paper is an essential product for a comfortable life. This statement might seem obvious, but the current status of toilet paper is quite recent. Humanity reached dizzying heights of cultural achievement before we were bestowed with the luxury of soft tissue to clean our bottoms. In the late 19th-century, toilet paper was marketed as a luxury product, and it quickly became embedded in the cultural landscape of the Western world through effective marketing.
The amount of choices for a product that is merely used to keep our behinds clean is bewildering. At the supermarket, we grab our favourite brand without any giving it much thought. How do we decide what toilet paper to use? This article briefly reviews someone of the techniques used in marketing toilet paper and how advertising helps us to select our favourite brand of paper.
My interest in toilet paper is closely related to my work as a water engineer. Water utilities transport and process sewage, and toilet paper is one of the substances that our pipes, pumps and plants process to ensure human waste does not endanger public health or the natural environment.
Consumer Involvement and Toilet Paper Marketing
The amount of energy we are willing to invest in a decision depends on the level of involvement we have with the product. Consumer involvement is a measure of the importance a consumer places on a product or service.1 Commodities such as toilet paper and tap water are low involvement products because they require little thought in their purchase.2
Low involvement products are hard to sell because, by definition, consumers don’t pay much attention to them. This low involvement is why marketers developed techniques to increase the level of involvement and in effect create a market where one previously did not exist. This practice started in the 1890s when the Scott Paper Company became the first to offer toilet paper on a roll and advertise it with a range of images positioning it as a luxury product.
Toilet paper marketing has evolved over the years. The 1980s advertisement below emphasises the material properties of the toilet paper. The ad shows images of the factory and talks about the production process to convince the consumer that this is the best possible paper on the market. This communication tries to increase the involvement consumers have with toilet paper by emphasising the features of the product.
A recent advertisement for the same product uses a different strategy. This ad is not trying to communicate that dogs should use toilet paper. This advertising and similar toilet paper marketing communications appeal to an ideal lifestyle to sell products.
The ad below barely mentions the physical benefits of the Kleenex product, but it shows an enviable home setting. This purpose of this piece of communication is to associate the Kleenex brand with the perfect life depicted in the images. Who would not want to live in a house with shiny polished floorboard and a labrador pet dog?
Marketing Toilet Paper and the Ideal Self
The products we purchase are an extension of our self; a means to construct an identity.3 Toilet paper manufacturers have used this psychological construct to capture the market. In supermarket aisles, we are bombarded by a plethora of types of toilet paper to choose from. The bewildering array of choices ranges from one, two or even three-ply, scented, non-scented, hypo-allergenic, recycled, non-bleached, rainforest certified and so on, and so on. There is a type of toilet paper for every segment of the market. Because we are subjected to this wide range of choices, we are forced to make one. The basic principle of marketing is to increase the likelihood that a consumer will choose your product.
The primary reason toilet paper manufacturers spend so much money on developing new types of toilet paper and advertising their product is that they want us to care about toilet paper. Not only by developing a product variant for every imaginable preference, but also by adding emotion to an otherwise dull product. Toilet paper advertising features cute puppy dogs, babies and other images that trigger emotions. When consumers are involved, they are hesitant to choose lower price alternatives and suppliers of toilet paper use this by creating a high level of involvement and charging higher prices than they otherwise could.4
In this respect, marketing toilet paper is very similar to marketing bottled water. The only way to convince consumers to purchase bottled water instead of using the 1000 times cheaper tap water is by manufacturing involvement with the product. Just like toilet paper, bottled water marketing creates an emotional connection with the customers with lifestyle imagery.
The high willingness to pay for toilet paper is no better illustrated than by what I observed during a recent visit to a supermarket in Kangaroo Flat in Australia. They sell rolls of specially printed Christmas toilet paper for $4.49 each, almost ten times as much as ordinary toilet paper. Cleaning your bottom with jolly messages and images makes life just that much more worth living. Christmas is a time when people are prepared to spend money on silly items, and a roll of special toilet paper can provide a lot of value because it becomes an instant conversation starter, as evidenced by this article.
- Zaichkowsky, J. L. (1985). Measuring the involvement construct. Journal of Consumer Research, 12(3), 341–352.
- Ratchford, B. T. (1987). New insights about the FCB grid. Journal of Advertising Research, 27(4), 24–38.
- Belk, R. W. (1988). Possessions and the extended self. Journal of Consumer Research, 15(2), 139–168.
- Cohen, M. (2000). Consumer involvement–driving up the cost. Consumer Policy Review, 10(4), 122–125.