Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Brand On A Roll

Begin by envisioning a man in a shiny 3-D toilet costume, complete with a silver flap at the stomach (the lid) and blue fabric below it (the water). Then imagine getting approached by this walking toilet in New York City’s Times Square, as it urges you to go “upstairs.”

Call 911, ya think? But these days, perhaps due to the complete Disneyfication of the district, pedestrians of all stripes seemed not only unfazed, but even delighted by the human bowl. The day I went to check out Procter & Gamble’s foray into the ultimate in experiential marketing—a festive holiday “rest room experience,” courtesy of Charmin in the heart of Times Square, which opened on Thanksgiving—families happily gathered around the human plush commode as if it were Mickey Mouse or a Hershey’s kiss to take pictures with it.

The toilet needs to be fairly aggressive at ground level, because the bathroom show is actually upstairs. On the escalator, everybody grins—after all, we’re heading for some sort of lavatory Valhalla while surrounded by TV screens playing videos of the animated Charmin bears and the infectious music of a Wiggles-like group singing “cha cha cha” and “your caress is perfect happiness.”

Upstairs, past the welcome station with its Flushometer—which registers guests’ states or countries of origin—we hit the big room, decorated with fabulous Philippe Starck modernist white outdoor furniture (the chairs that William Shatner and James Spader sit on for their final outdoor smoke scene in Boston Legal). There’s a dance floor, a fake fireplace, a photo-op corner with a giant stuffed Charmin bear by a toboggan in white cotton snow, and a 6-foot tall, extremely life-like Puffs nose. (There’s a crowd around the nose waiting patiently to take photos.) In light of the realistic-looking nose, which seemed made of putty, I silently give thanks that there isn’t a piece of Charmin-related anatomy with which to pose.

But on to taking care of business. The Charmin “greeters,” each dancing around with a wireless headpiece, wrangle the crowd into a line as they direct people into doors numbered 1-20.

Here’s something of a breakthough—the setup is like a laboratory for a lavatory in that it’s coed. The space has a friendly unisex, backstage Broadway feeling—but it’s not an Ally McBeal, sharing-too-much thing, either. (Each room feels like personal dressing room and, due to the wonders of aromatherapy, smells of “fresh linen.”)

“Come on down!” the guardian of room 7 says, beckoning to me (mixing bathroom and Price Is Right humor) and I enter. The space is small, but a strange delight. Imagine a room designed by Martha Stewart with the help of Mr. Whipple that exceeds the exacting standards of both. From Marthaland, there’s a definite upper crust New England cast to the cornflower blue and white rooms (from the white bead board siding and crown molding, to the white porcelain toilet, pedestal sink and Pergo floor). Then there’s the exquisite attention to “tissue” detail: a six-roller at the ready, plus, all the Bounty paper towels and Safeguard soap you could imagine. Each room also has a dedicated worker/dancer/greeter who cleans after each visit.

According to one of the producers, there hasn’t been a problem with keeping the line moving, but that’s hard to believe, since I could have relaxed there for a while. And I hadn’t even gotten one of the super-deluxe, oversized or special theme rooms. Actress Doris Roberts, a.k.a. Raymond’s mom, was there for the first flush (someone give this woman a job!) and her room has a star on the door and is painted lavender. Another has a Wall Street scene complete with ticker, and there are two Pampers-piled, baby-changing rooms, and two dedicated to “Li’l Squirts” and emergencies.

Maybe there’s something stronger in the air than the aromatherapy, but while there I seemed to enter into a state of altered consciousness. I’ve never liked the Charmin commercials with the bear in the woods shaking its tail—I thought the allusion to the “bear in the woods” joke was vulgar, and that the spots, literally showing deposits on the paper but animated in a way to appeal to moms and kids, were kind of disgusting (a stranger kind of disgusting than South Park’s Christmas Poo). But after submitting to this “plush flush” experience, suddenly, all of Charmin’s potty jokes seemed sublime.

The rest room was based on the success that the brand has had with its Potty Palooza—a similarly luxuriously outfitted rest room in a tractor trailer that pops up at various state fairs. Sadly, this Charmin experience closes down after the New Year. Then it’s back to the kindness—and stainless steel, prison-like aesthetic—of Starbucks’ bathroom (if it’s not locked).

I had a new spring in my step as I picked up a free gift on the way out. It was wrapped in yellow plastic and I thought it was a toy. In fact, it was a Charmin “extender” (which allows its Mega roll to fit most standard holders). Boy, these people have thought of everything, because carrying the extender also extends your Charmin experience.

Truly, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. And folks, the jokes keep writing themselves.