Friday, June 18, 2010

Please Don't Squeeze the Indelicate Metaphor

Creating advertising for certain intimate products isn't easy. You want to communicate the key benefits of your client's offering that can't be matched by the competition and, generally, you don't want to veer into oversharing or unpleasantness. So you focus on areas like dependability, or greater absorption, or enjoyably pleasant scents, or supreme softness. One of the most long-running and successful campaigns, Charmin bathroom tissue, carefully walked this line for decades. The spots ran from 1964 to 1985 and cast a familiar character actor named Dick Wilson as a slightly high-strung grocery manager named George Whipple. In over 500 spots, Mr. Whipple, as he was known, politely admonished customers to refrain from squeezing the Charmin. But the product was so soft and inviting that he usually couldn't hold back from squeezing it himself, much to his embarrassment. That itself was a testament to the product's quality.

During his heyday Wilson worked only 12 days a year filming the spots, netting $300,000 annually. The commercials were so successful, and became such a part of the advertising landscape, that the phrase "Please don't squeeze the Charmin" was forged as part of the American lexicon, and in the late '70s surveys placed the brand spokesman third as the most recognized man in the country (number one was Jimmy Carter). 

A brand pedigree like this might explain why I so despise the current crop of Charmin ads. They depict a family of supposedly adorable animated bears, and certain trees in their forest apparently serve as ursine latrines, since their branches function as toilet paper dispensers. It's like the entire concept hinges on the rhetorical question, "Does a bear shit in the woods?" Apparently they do, and they wipe their bottoms with what was once America's brand of choice. There's even a new spot that focuses on a shameful bruin elimination problem that's only now coming to light: the issue of toilet tissue that "leaves behind" pieces of the paper in baby bear's fur. A narrator playfully scolds that, "you'll never pass inspection that way," making me wonder exactly who is in charge of inspecting America's rear end for foreign materials. Mr. Whipple would be passed out face-first in the persimmons from horror.

Charmin's advertising legacy was so established in the firmament of 20th century successes alongside indelible characters like Mr. Clean and Josephine the Plumber that it's a sacrilege to bring their marketing efforts to the level of anal detritus, however cute the bears are. And let's not even consider the prospect of 600-pound mammals defecating in the forest and what products might need to be called into play to tidy up. Obviously Mr. Whipple couldn't have gone on squeezing the Charmin forever -- the company brought him back briefly in 1999, and Wilson died in 2007 at the age of 91 -- but a little brainstorming might have come up with a more appropriate update to the company's long-term messaging strategy.

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