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Saturday, 14 March 2015

Toilet trips, stain tips and the silliness of modern advertising

As I was refilling our loo roll holder for the tenth time this week (Duckling is going through the obligatory toilet paper unravelling phase) I noticed that the back of the Andrex packet featured a five-step pictorial guide on use of the product contained therein. Seriously. Thought that wiping your bum involved a few sheets of scrunched up bog roll and a quick swoosh round your nether regions? Think again! To do it properly, you first select 3-4 sheets of paper for an initial wipe. You then repeat, wiping front to back until the paper comes away clean. Next, you use 1-2 moist Andrex Washlets for a truly thorough cleanse before you "pat dry" with further sheets of regular paper. Finally, in a public spirited step five, you are encouraged to Wash Your Hands. I'm surprised there isn't a step six suggesting you then dry them with loo roll as well, before eating a few sheets for elevenses.
 
Many people get incensed by corporate attempts to infiltrate every aspect of our lives in the pursuit of profit. This is entirely understandable; one only need look at tobacco and alcohol advertising to realise the dangers of giving companies free rein to promote their products in any manner they see fit.  However, I would wager that for the most part, advertising executives have less power than they believe they do.  For Andrex, the dream I'm sure is to persuade the entire nation that they've been improperly wiping their bottoms up until now (the unsanitary troglodytes) and that they must start using an extra ten sheets plus a moist towelette at every toilet trip.  Putting aside the fact that the majority of toilet paper is used by women who don't actually wipe their bum at most visits (or indeed ever, for all you men out there who don't believe that ladies poop), this dream I suspect is of the pipe variety. Yes, mentioning the moist version of their toilet tissue on the back of the pack is going to inform people that it exists, and may even prompt them to buy some.  But we no longer live in the 1950s - most people are pretty wise to marketing ploys and I can't imagine many who will decide to totally overhaul their lavatorial routine just because the Andrex gurus tell them they should.  Although I am a very thorough wiper already so there isn't much room for improvement at my end...
 
The silliness continues in brands' attempts to cash in on current trends in online communication and social media.  John Oliver recently did an excellent piece on Last Week Tonight regarding the cringe-worthiness of big name companies tweeting about public events which have no relevance to their brands.  The Build a Bear workshop tweet which appears to inappropriately commercialise 9-11 is a particularly awkward example.  Then you have things like the Vanish Tip Exchange. For the uninitiated (you poor souls), the 'VTE' ostensibly offers worried washers the chance to share suggestions on the best way to get stains out of things.  A noble aim were it not for the fact that the answer to every single question in their tip section appears to be "put some Vanish on it".  Got a chocolate stain? Here are forty marginally different ways you can use a Vanish branded product to get it out. Or you could just use a regular detergent, because, you know, chocolate doesn't actually stain that much (unlike baby poo which no amount of Vanishing, Shouting or Stain Devilling will get out. Maybe I should use Andrex Washlets on it...).

In the spirit of investigative journalism, I signed up to the VTE to gauge whether the many "use some Vanish" tips had been written by the ad execs themselves or left by real people (in which case why?  I mean what would possess you to go on a site not just sponsored by a product but actually set up and run by it, just to promote that product further?  I can only imagine they're all married to / siblings of / being blackmailed by a Vanish employee).  The site is a bit of a shambles but eventually I managed to find a page where I could leave a tip. It seemed to offer a genuine opportunity to share my wealth of stain removal knowledge, and looking at the tips left by others, the poor spelling and dodgy photos implied the posters were real people.  However, a week after posting, my suggestion that you could get grass stains out with a lawnmower has not appeared, presumably because it didn't overtly sing the praises of the titular white powder in the neon pink tub. You might say my contribution has suspiciously Vanished.  Ahem
 
This example of transparent band-wagoning is not to say that corporate attempts to tap into popular culture can't be successful - indeed some even manage to create it.  The Baby Oleg toy in Duckling's room is testament to the fact that with the right formula, advertising campaigns can take on a life of their own. The recent craze for all things meerkat, the upsurge in animal-fronted adverts (think Virgin's sofa bear, Muller Rice's bear, the Sofa Works sloth, the Music Magpie, the McVities kittens / puppies / owls...) and a general penchant for whimsy might all be attributed to Compare The Market's wildly popular campaign.  I actually shed a tear recently when little Baby Oleg decided to remain in Africa to live out his days with the stripy pyjama horses (I am SUCH a sap these days!).  The adverts are perfectly pitched - funny, sweet and slightly nuts - but I'm sure even the ad execs who came up with them never dreamed they would still be running six years later, or that Alexsandr Orlov would have over sixty-seven thousand Twitter followers. Such success is always hoped for, but rarely achieved.  The companies keep trying though, and as a result, amongst the market comparison sites alone we have a whole gamut of 'lovable' characters and catchphrases: think Confused.com's mildly annoying Brian the Robot, the utterly nauseating Gogogo Compare ads (I honestly preferred the opera singer) and You're SO Money Supermarket.  With Snoop Dogg. Natch.
 
So, while I slightly despair of the painfully obvious desperation of much modern marketing, there is also certain delight to be taken from the forced silliness of it all; of being able to rise above and recognise the clunkiness of trying to commercialise popular culture and everyday life in ways that simply don't work.  Provided of course we can recognise its silliness, because as ever, there is a flip side.  I think I'll save my post on the vulnerability of women and girls to sinister and pervasive 'body perfect' advertising for another, less flippant day however, because right now, the Andrex (toilet) and the Vanish (washing) are calling...

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