Why are there puppies in toilet paper commercials?

Toilet paper is a consumer brand that has been around for over 100 years. The basic product proposition has evolved very little, and the marketing is a tricky issue. You can’t really depict the product in use, or even go into detail on its performance!

Luckily, marketing often works best when it ignores those issues and uses metaphors to talk to people. By the 1920s, the Scott company had a mascot called Mr Thirsty Fibre. As you can see, he’s a fighter, (tough) but made of loops of paper (soft!).

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Fast forward about 90 years and the basics of TP marketing are basically the same. You’re selling the idea of softness and strength. But the metaphor chosen is different. It’s a puppy.

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In the 20th century, the whole science of meaning-making blew up, with experts like Chomsky and Lakoff exploring how humans make meaning out of language and symbols.

Keen students of this evolving science  were the “Mad Men” – advertising executives. And so it was that advertising gave up on lengthy texts:

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 10.14.21 amIn favour of signs and symbols that any semiotician can tell you are just as easy to interpret. Especially if you’ve been subject to a barrage of advertising your whole life.

Puppies are softer than a full-grown dog but still strong. They are not scratchy like a kitten might be – in fact puppies may be the perfect TP metaphor.

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While Kleenex chooses a cute yellow puppy, Purex goes for a brown, wrinkly one. Are they trying to convey what I think they’re trying to convey? Best to not think about that too much.

But the toilet paper market stands on the brink of a revolution. Kleenex are trying their best to break the habits of a century and sell us a new product, called Flushable Cleaning Cloths

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This is basically moist towelettes for the bathroom. But they’ve given up on metaphor. The marketing message is wordy and long.

If they are keen to convey the need for water to really clean, they needs to use something that is wet and clean as a metaphor. If they don’t want to leave the animal kingdom, I might suggest a dolphin.

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Aren’t dolphins more or less the puppy of the sea?

Another thing that seems synonymous with being clean and wet might be a car.

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In fact, sn advertising campaign where a smirking guy drives around in a just-washed car while everyone else drives around in a car they’ve tried to wipe with paper might be exactly the marketing message that Kleenex needs.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

One thought on “Why are there puppies in toilet paper commercials?”

  1. You’ve almost nailed it with the dolphin. But there is the fin, and that’s not going to make the cut.
    Water is a very popular substance in ads, for cars in particular. I think water streams and cascades will do. No high pressure water jet tough.

    The Western world is minding the gap with Japan but no quite yet. I approve moist towelettes.


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