Barbara Lippert’s Critique: A Gut Feeling

I understand the impulse to give Metamucil, the trusted, 75-year-old natural laxative brand, an image makeover. Who in advertising wouldn’t want to get away from the elimination puns and the even worse metaphors, such as the one found in the spot, done by a previous agency, in which a park ranger sprinkles the powdered stuff into Old Faithful? (That’s regularity. And non-hilarity.) And certainly, in the past couple of years, many of the P&G brands—Old Spice, for example—have succeeded in doing the near miraculous: modernizing their images and actually appealing to a new generation of hipsters without entirely ditching the grandpa (or grandma) equity.

In this case, the issue of what the company internally refers to as “laxation” is oh so 2006. The campaign, from Publicis, aimed at a health-conscious, pro-active, 35-year-old woman (instead of your basic, semi-constipated 50-plusser), suggests that these days everything is up for cosmetic reinvention—including your intestines.

Indeed, Publicis has created some pretty TV spots for the new, supposedly better-flavored and repackaged Metamucil tablets. There’s edgy music and nicely designed, sophisticated graphics that help convey attractiveness, and we see contemporary young women putting on mascara, doing their hair and applying lipstick. The matching words on the screen are lively and cleverly retro-ish, including “primp,” “coif” and “gussy up.” Meanwhile, the product is only seen reflected in the mirror of a fancy, old-fashioned gold compact case. The spot ends with the tagline, “Beautify your inside.” (I guess the final “s” was deemed ugly.)

Metamucil is a compound word: “meta”‘ is Greek for “change” and “mucilage” is Latin for “your crappy ad campaign.” Just kidding. Mucilage is a form of fiber—and so is the product. It’s all-natural psyllium, to be specific, and that’s why there’s a delicate wheat graphic silhouetted over the woman’s naked back towards the end of the spot.

The strategy is fine. Rather than focusing on the direct product benefit with all its obvious elimination-based illustrations (we’ll let it go at that), why not promote the product’s secondary health benefits? Studies have shown that ingesting this type of fiber supplement does remove cholesterol from the body, which improves heart health. That’s legitimate and is conveyed in the spot with a playful voiceover saying that the product “lowers cholesterol, making your heart look ooh la la.” (A model walks around smiling, wearing a cute red enamel heart pinned to her sweater, over her actual heart.) It’s a winning image, and I have no doubt that the focus on beauty is visually appealing.

But here’s where the new paradigm breaks down: Linking regularity with external beauty is not only groundless, but dangerous. I know that with her live colonoscopy on the Today show, Katie Couric has single-handedly destigmatized the colon, and that’s great. But to make it another area that needs “toning,” or some sort of cosmetic fixer-upper, is too much. Now, before going out, women tend to check their hair and makeup. Should they also worry about their intestines looking their best?

All joking aside, the print ad, to be seen in spring editions of magazines, does begin to cross the line. Consciously or not (and if not, this seems to be a case of Clueless 101), it directly feeds into the preoccupations of girls with eating disorders, whose arsenal of products to abuse already tends to include laxatives. It shows a skinny, attractive, young model (at most in her early 20s) with her head and shoulders on the ground and her body in an upside down, weirdly contorted position, all the better to focus on her super-flat stomach. “Drop-dead gorgeous guts” reads the headline. The copy begins, “Help your not-so-glam insides reach supermodel status” and ends with “Just add Metamucil to your already diva-conscious diet and your insides will be haute-haute-haute.” Clever, attention-getting wordplay, yes. And P&G insists that since the product is natural, even overdoing it can’t cause any harm, especially since most Americans tend to be so fiber-deprived. But for anyone familiar with these deadly health problems, words like “drop,” as in poundage, “supermodel” and “diva-conscious” feed into an anorexic way of thinking. And now girls with eating disorders can claim that they’re taking the laxative as a health benefit—even if they misuse it to curb their appetites. That’s why if models are hungry before going out on the runway, they eat Kleenex backstage.

OK, say I’m overreacting and no product can guarantee that some consumers won’t abuse it. Still, the look of the print reminded me of something–-and I finally got it: Brooke Shields, 12-year-old, posing for Calvin Klein jeans, offering the line, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.”

Now this ad offers a new area to make gorgeous: designer-worthy guts, to die for.