Call it progress, or clutch your pearls. Bathroom humor that would have been rejected by network standards departments in earlier eras is now sailing through—and going viral.
A Kmart spot in 2013 in which customers happily proclaimed that they "ship their pants," for example, ran on cable networks and garnered more than 32 million views on YouTube. And in 2014 Cottonelle aired a campaign for flushable wipes where an interviewer asked strangers, "How do you wipe your bum?"
The latest company to take the bathroom-humor approach is in the toilet business: American Standard. One of three new commercials by 22squared in Atlanta opens with a woman speeding into a parking lot in a station wagon and cutting the wheel sharply, leaving tracks. "Nobody likes skid marks," the driver says. "That's why I use the American Standard VorMax flushing system." A product demo shows an image of her car stenciled inside a toilet bowl washed away with a flush.
A second spot features an elderly couple eating outside on their patio. The husband squeezes a plastic ketchup bottle that splatters—with a Whoopee-cushion sound—all over his shirt. "No one wants to look at splatter," says his wife. Yet another opens with a woman piggybacking on her boyfriend's back and repeating, "I love you!" The boyfriend says, "No one likes a clinger."
The ads debut Feb. 2 on cable networks including History and the Discovery Channel, as well as on Scripps nets like HGTV and DIY; American Standard did not seek out broadcasters, but the spot will appear on NBC.com. Projected ad expenditure for the campaign is $5 million.
After low-flow regulations in 1994 limited toilets to flush 1.6 gallons of water, down from 3.5 gallons, many consumers were rankled by clogs and an increased need for the toilet brush. "What we found in talking to consumers about some of their dissatisfactions was that they were disgusted and discouraged that there were things left in the bowl," said Jeannette Long, American Standard Brands' vp of brand marketing. The new VorMax system, which replaces numerous rim holes with a single jet of water and an "EverClean" finish that resists stains and bacteria, is the brand's latest effort to flush more with less.
Curt Mueller, creative director at 22squared, said the only issue raised by standards departments was from Scripps Networks, which in the script phase objected to the description of the ketchup bottle splattering as making a "farting sound," but approved the final spots. Far from being relegated to the infomercial wee hours, 60 percent of the spots will run during prime time, with another 10 percent airing in the late afternoon and the rest on weekends.
Asked to review the spots, two lawyers with clearance specialties agreed that they passed muster. "They are going for the cheap laugh a little bit, but it is relevant to the subject matter," said Anne Carol Winters, an attorney with Simpson Thacher & Bartlett who in previous positions assisted clients with network clearance.
Jeffrey Edelstein, a media lawyer with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, said during the 1980s, when he was director of standards and practices at ABC, scatological references like American Standard's campaign would have faced rejection. "They're done in a humorous way and are done tastefully," said Edelstein, who agreed that the spots are appropriate to air today. "But I don't think that subject matter would have been permissible to the networks 30 years ago."