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Barbara Lippert's Critique: Kohler's Royal Flush

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Fashion Week is over in New York, and with it the frenzy of celeb sightings and parties. (A few people looked at the clothing on the runways, too.) But one tall, thin, porcelain model came out of nowhere to make a giant splash. The Coco Chanel of commodes, the "Purist hatbox," is Kohler's latest toilet. Surrounded by flowers, it greeted visitors in the lobby of the main tent, and rows of PH's replaced the usual crude port-a-potties out back. Needless to say, the gracefully minimal, tankless, leverless lavatories received swooning reviews from fashionistas who finally got the haute contour and design excellence they felt they deserved for their bony posteriors.

Talk about your prime (and primal, and functional) product placement. Kohler has been super smart about developing this delicate (and easily pretentious) nexus between fashion and plumbing products. That's possible only because form follows function—the products are all about design excellence, and the "bold look of" advertising further infuses spirit, life and energy into objects that are in themselves cold and remote.

On the face of it, it could easily seem odd or unseemly to harbor sudden, undue longings for a particular spigot or power toilet. But together with its agency, GSD&M, Kohler is particularly adept at, er, plumbing our unconscious desires. Testing the limits of bold, they are the new Freuds of hygiene and waste management.

This is certainly the case for "Last Words," one of three new TV spots released last week. As with many commercials set at a death scene, it's slightly cruel, but surprising and funny, too.

"Don't cry for me, children. I've had a long and happy life," the white-haired mater familias says in Italian (with English subtitles) from her bed. The camera pans around the richly appointed room to show photos of a woman who obviously lived a sort of fearless Hemingway existence and has the trophies (even a photo of her piloting a World War II-era bomber) to prove it. Several generations of her family and the family priest sob as she assures them, "I've done everything I wanted to do" (including posing for a portrait of her curvaceous, naked back). She's perfectly content to bathe in her sea of good memories.

That's until she spies, through the French doors of the apartment across from hers, a woman preparing her Kohler "Soak" tub—an eight-foot-deep negative-edge pool. (It has a trough around the edge so the water is caught and regenerated, and it is gorgeous.) She bolts upright and utters her only English word —"Damn!"—as her last. While we cry for Mama, we can also take a minute to weep for the state of censorship on network television—the D-word will be heard on cable, but will be replaced with "Ohh!" on the broadcast nets.

If I may break for a moment of overanalysis here: This setup is ironic, considering that the woman's no-doubt moneyed, aristocratic life allowed her to live in the great houses of Italy, where the tubs are the original versions of this neo-faux-Mediterranean marvel. But leave it to us Amurricans to improve on the authentic.

The spot is beautifully shot and does convey the frenzy of longing. While the dying-of-tub-envy thing could stir some P.C. sensitivities, I found it far less shocking than a previous spot which will run in rotation with this new work (along with a third commercial showing a couple racing each other to their power shower). In the older commercial, a blind guy attends a party at a fabulous new house and uses the bathroom. His hands are his eyes as he examines the elegantly streamlined sink. He goes back to his companion and says, "You should see the bathroom." I thought that people with disabilities would be all over Kohler—and they were. The spot received an award from the National Association for the Blind. All I have to say is, "Damn!" Or rather, "Gosh dern!"

I hate it when I'm obviously the target demo and I fall hook, line and sinker for a spot, but that was the case with "Perfect," my favorite of the three new spots. It's hilarious from the get-go: A 40s-ish woman wakes from her bed, which she shares with a ridiculously gorgeous twentysomething hunk, who gives her a twinkling wink. She goes to her closet, which is a veritable Versailles, and looks through her jewelry drawer, a collection of diamonds that dwarfs Elizabeth Taylor's. When she looks out in her backyard and sees a rainbow over a unicorn, it only makes the preposterous progression funnier. (We must need a lot of extreme fantasy retreating right now—this is the second unicorn to show up in an ad in three weeks.) She goes into the bathroom and sees the sink—it's the most dazzling thing imaginable, with alluring, hanging beads on the sides. "Don't wake up," she tells herself, as the scene returns to the bed—and her equally middle-aged, not terribly attractive husband. And the sink stays with ya.

"Disturbance" shows a woman who hires ghostbusters to come to her house and observe its oddly shaking, levitating objects and furniture. The paranormal pros tell her to leave, but she takes one look at her spa bathroom and won't. It's also well produced but a little more obvious and so boldly out there that it's less funny.

Always unexpected and visually intelligent, the spots are amusing but also keep the attention on the products. I always thought that, like Edith Piaf, it would be nice to be able to say, "Je ne regrette rien." But now I'm thinking, well, maybe, if I coulda shoulda had one of them necklace sinks, with the light hitting the beads just so ...



Kohler

Agency

GSD&M, Austin, Texas

Creative director

David Crawford

Producer

Jeff Johnson

Director

Colin Gregg/

Therapy Films

"Perfect"

Art director

Rob Story

Copywriter

Rob Katzenstein

"Disturbance," "Last Words"

Art director

Lynn Sarnow Born

Copywriter

Carole Hurst