Opinion / We Need to Talk About Toilet Paper

  • Karl Marsden
Here at Contagious we are spoiled. We are constantly exposed to the very best of our industry. Our editor’s bar for excellence is extremely high, so when you read what’s on our platforms, you can be sure it’s something outstanding.
But that sample doesn’t reflect the majority of what we see in the real world, with thousands of distinctly average campaigns being created every day. And their averageness means most of them will be ignored. Even if you buy the most premium ad space in the world, the results can still be truly disappointing.
Forbes’ Will Burns puts it frankly:
Did you hear that flushing sound at the end of the Super Bowl? That was the sound of $100 million getting flushed down the toilet. Twenty-one spots were neither liked nor effective. It hurts to even write about it. These 21 spots didn't earn any buzz because people didn't like them. And they didn't influence the millions of people who happened to watch them live during the game.
So basically, our industry has a very, very small percentage of creative and effective successes. Leaving a colossal number of ads that either people didn’t notice or were epic fails.
Here in Brazil we are witnessing one of the most epic ad fails of recent times.
Yes, this exists. Black toilet paper. White model wrapped in it. ‘Black is beautiful’ as a tagline. As a non-native English speaker, I can say that the word cringe-worthy has never made so much sense to me.
It’s painful, but I’ll keep talking about it. Because we need to learn how something like this can happen – and how we can avoid it.
First, let’s talk about the product. Lucia Rezende, the marketing director of Personal, said: ‘This is a toilet paper created to show that good taste and refinement can be present at all times of everyday family life.’ As a planner, I ask myself: Is this a real insight? Is this really something families are looking for?
Marketers are under pressure. Margins are shrinking. The urgency to create value is real. And I can only imagine the pressure to create value in a category as commoditised as toilet paper.
Think about it. If you ask someone in a focus group if they want more refinement in their daily lives, they will probably say yes. Black is often used to represent something premium. Black toilet paper exists in other parts of the world. It all makes sense. It really does. So, you have a new product.
Now you brief your agency to sell it.
But before I start discussing the creative concept, there is something I’d like to point out: It’s getting harder and harder to sell something you didn’t help to create, to sell something you don’t see the value of.
Advertising used to be the colourful wrapping paper you put on something to get people to buy into it. But that’s not enough anymore. More and more, creative partners need to be a part of the whole process – to help create things that are sellable. To me, this lack of involvement is one of the main reasons why talented people leave agencies and don't come back. Getting a finished product and being told ‘now sell it’ is a hellish job to do.
But let’s get back to black toilet paper.
The creative concept to sell it is: black is beautiful. As the Brazilian activist, Anderson França wrote: ‘If you type "black is beautiful" anywhere in the world, you will find Angela Davis, Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, Fela Kuti, James Baldwin, Nina Simone. But not in Brazil… In Brazil, if you type #blackisbeautiful you will find a roll of toilet paper.’

It (predictably?) sparked serious outrage all over Brazil.
I write ‘predictably?’ because that’s something I’ve been questioning since I first saw the campaign. With all the discussions happening globally and in Brazil about white supremacy and racism, is it possible that everyone who created and approved this campaign was completely oblivious to the implications?
Or, in a world where most of the work we create is ignored, is bad fame better than no fame at all? Who would talk about a new black toilet paper? Now it’s on all major media outlets everywhere. It got Personal VIP Black a level of awareness even good creative work would struggle to obtain.
I don’t know the answer. But, in any case, the brand demoted an iconic racial resistance slogan to a simple matter of pop culture. And, in a world that is already collapsing, that is unthinkable. But in a commoditised, FMCG category like this one, it finally gave people a reason to choose a (different) brand.