A short history of toilet-paper marketing.

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Sept. 19 2011 4:56 PM

What Do Bears Have To Do With Toilet Paper?

A short history of bathroom-tissue marketing. Plus: Are bears really that soft?

Charmin's Leonard the bear. Click image to expand.
Charmin's Leonard the bear

A few weeks ago, Procter & Gamble celebrated National Toilet Paper Day at an event featuring its Charmin brand mascot, Leonard the Bear. When did bears get to be associated with bathroom hygiene?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Over the last few decades. The preponderance of bears on toilet-paper packaging—along with angels, babies, and puppies—derives from the dominance of the major players in the bath-tissue industry. Procter & Gamble, Georgia-Pacific and Kimberly-Clark together control about two-thirds of the market, and their brand icons—the Charmin bear, the Angel Soft baby, and the Cottonelle puppy—showed up in the United States over a 15-year span beginning in the late-1980s.

The first commercial brands of toilet paper emerged 100 years earlier, at a time when the product was rarely associated with specific images. In the 1880s, most were sold as "medicated paper" for treating hemorrhoids or other health problems, and decorated with wordy display copy reminiscent of the labels on Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap.

The Scott Paper Company became the first to offer toilet paper on a roll in the 1890s, and its products were marketed under private labels that each had their own advertising scheme. Many used words and pictures to connote luxury, as in The Waldorf and The Statler, two brands named after fancy hotels. Some showed images of ladies in ball gowns or gentlemen riding in horse-drawn carriages.

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By the 1920s, the Scott Company had created its own genteel paper-products spokesman named Mr. Thirsty Fibre. Created in the mold of dapper brand icons such as Mr. Peanut and Rich Uncle Penny Bags (or Mr. Monopoly, as he's now known), Mr. Thirsty Fibre resembled a fuzzy, angry Abraham Lincoln—a gaunt man in a top hat and tails, brandishing his fists at moisture.

A few other manly toilet-paper icons populated the early years of the product, like the grizzled seafarer from packages of Life Guard, but the industry soon adopted a more lady-like approach. The Charmin brand got its start in 1928 with a woman's cameo silhouette on the package—a "charming logo" that connoted femininity and elegance. (Virile cleaning-product icons like Mr. Clean and the Brawny Lumberjack wouldn't show up for another few decades.)

In 1953, Charmin further softened its image by placing a baby alongside the woman. In 1956, the Charmin Lady was bounced altogether, leaving the baby to fend for itself as the brand icon. (She lives on overseas: A modern version of the cameo silhouette now decorates Soft n' Pretty toilet paper in Trinidad and Tobago.)

Albany Perforated Toilet Paper, 1896. Click image to expand.
Albany Perforated Toilet Paper, 1896

The toilet-paper puppy arrived in 1972, at the suggestion of an executive at the Scott Paper Company's Andrex line in Britain. It soon became one of the most beloved advertising icons in the United Kingdom—such a success that in 2003, a few years after Kimberly-Clark bought out Scott, the company adopted the yellow Labrador as the spokesanimal for its own Cottonelle brand. The little dog on the package was supposed to convey vulnerability and a need for gentle treatment, a company rep told the New York Times.

At around the same time, Procter & Gamble decided to bring in its own ringer from the United Kingdom, and the Charmin Bear arrived on our shores in 2000. P&G had earlier jettisoned its White Cloud line of toilet paper and the talking wad of fluff that was its logo. That left the meteorological motif to Georgia-Pacific, which launched its Angel Soft brand in 1986 with flocks of winged babies rising through clouds. (Georgia-Pacific also makes the Quilted Northern brand, the icons for which have ranged from Fluffy the Northern Cub in the 1940s to a group of bespectacled grandmothers with needles in the late 1990s.)

Meanwhile, Scott's regular brand of toilet paperstayed around with a generic, character-free package design befitting its niche as the no-frills, "value brand." The company now has a rather obscure brand persona for these products, in the form of a guy in a gray button-down shirt named "Scott."

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