Cottonelle's bizarre end run.

Commentary about business and finance.
Jan. 28 2002 3:06 PM

Ad Report Card: Cottonelle's Bizarre End Run

Sometimes a new product comes along that fulfills a particular need. Other times, the need must be invented. In the latter case, consumers will go along with it (Coca-Cola would be a powerful example of a product that no one needs but that many people buy anyway), or they won't. Keep this in mind as we consider one of the most startling new products in recent memory, Cottonelle Fresh Rollwipes, and a current ad trying to drum up a sense of need among potential consumers.

Click to view video The ad: A peppy but inoffensive guitar line thrums along as we see shots of people swimming. There's something odd: The camera keeps focusing on the swimmers' backsides. Here's a row of men's butts as they shoot out of the pool. Here's a woman's rump as she scissor-kicks and spins around underwater. The rear ends of a couple as they dance on the beach. A guy's ass as he jackhammers. Older peoples' posteriors as they hula-hoop by a pool. What's going on here? "To feel truly fresh where it really counts," a voice-over intercedes, "sometimes wetter is better."Excuse me?

At this point in the commercial, we're looking at the backsides of three women doing a flip in the water. Finally there's a product shot as the announcer says, "Introducing Cottonelle Fresh Rollwipes." Here the viewer experiences a certain sense of total disbelief, as the announcer continues, "Together with dry toilet paper, these new pre-moistened wipes on a roll leave you feeling cleaner and fresher." We are shown the special dispenser being placed in some Typical American Bathroom; it's a double-decker affair with a regular roll of toilet paper at the bottom and another compartment up top from which the "wipes" may be extracted. Rollwipes, then, are a new product to be used in concert with toilet paper.

As the ad shifts back to its colorful butt montage, a woman's voice comments, "Mmm, this is good." I'm not kidding! Then we see a black man working out or getting ready to jog or something (in the rain), as he rotates his hips and practically shoves his ass into the camera. There are more rump shots (woman in a skirt, wiggling as she rides on the back of a motorcycle, etc.), and finally we get one last look at yellow-shorts guy as he jogs away; or rather, we get one last look at his (presumably pristine) ass. "Cottonelle Fresh Rollwipes," the announcer concludes. "What it means to feel clean."

Feeling filthy? It's not the least bit unusual for an ad to try to make its viewers feel vaguely insecure—about their breath, their appearance, their popularity, whatever. But really. Are there no limits? Can't a line be drawn somewhere? Obviously not. Because here is an ad that, in effect, says to its viewers, to its potential customers, even: Hey America, you have a filthy ass! Now do something about it!! Has there ever been an ad campaign that started with a more insulting assumption about its targets?

And really, isn't this one problem that we, as a civilization, have conquered? Do you feel that the process of using toilet paper needs to augmented and enhanced by turning it into a two-part affair? Surely this must be the most embarrassing product of all time. It's way more embarrassing than, for instance, adult diapers—the need for those, after all, arises from conditions beyond one's control. What, apart from an almost psychotic strain of laziness, could excuse the bizarre lapse of hygiene Cottonelle is suggesting? Or is the point that a kind of nirvana of heretofore-unthinkable butt cleanliness lies over the horizon for buyers of Fresh Rollwipes? I don't know a thing about you, but one thing I'd like to think I can just assume is that you're not going through your day thinking, "You know, I'm just not sure whether I did an adequate job of cleaning myself up in the bathroom just now." And if you do go through your day thinking such things, and you're really excited about this product, please keep that to yourself.

I guess an ad can't be blamed for the insipidness of the product on offer, and it's hard to imagine what kind of commercial could have been made on behalf of the Rollwipes that wouldn't have been totally ridiculous. That said, this particular commercial seems willfully strange: It's more preposterous than most parody ads on Saturday Night Live. You have to wonder if it wasn't deliberate subversion on someone's part to make sure that this product is laughed out of existence immediately. Actually, you have to hope that's the case.

Rob Walker is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Design Observer and the author of Buying In.