Perspective: Soaking It In

Paper towels really haven't changed that much—that explains why their advertising has

When a brand manages to stay in business for a century or more, it’s often because the agile R&D guys keep the core product up to date. But sometimes the opposite approach works better. The product can stay pretty much the same for decades, while it’s the marketing that remains au courant. A textbook example: paper towels—specifically, the advertising from Scott Products shown here.

     Paper towels actually entered our lives not because people were messy but because they were paranoid. E. Irvin and Clarence Scott enjoyed a brisk trade in toilet tissue starting in 1879. Then, around 1900, hysteria over newly discovered germs made Americans terrified about sharing cloth towels in public washrooms. So in 1907, the Scotts modified their toilet paper, widening their tear-off sheets, making them thicker, and introducing the name “Sani-Towels.” This revolutionized life at the sink. Today, we drop $2.3 billion annually on paper towels.

     Despite the obvious need, however, paper towels never just sold themselves. In the early days, the Scott brothers’ pitch (“For once by one user”) was about how paper towels kept your hands safe from disease-breeding organisms. But by the 1960s, a lot had changed. Listerine and Lysol were killing germs, too, and competition was coming: By 1965, Bounty towels would roll into supermarkets. Scott’s admen switched up the messaging and produced the 1962 ad at right. According to Teri Williams, who directs the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum at Georgia Tech, Scott’s ad took the same product but reintroduced it to the public—the postwar housewife, basically—as the solution to a new set of problems.

     “There was a passion for convenience and ease,” Williams says. “By showing 10 different ways of using the towels, it appealed to that desire—No messy rags. Cuts down on washing and ironing.”

     While the towels themselves remained roughly the same (capillary action drew water into the air pockets between the paper fibers), ScotTowels had gone from your germ-fighting friends to your versatile new ally for smart housekeeping: polishing silver, dumping coffee grounds—and even keeping the TV screen clean.

     Step ahead to 2011, and Scott’s marketing has adapted yet again, this time with “It’s good to know Scott Towels”—a simple reminder of the old product’s familiarity. “Today, we know everything about how paper towels can be used,” Williams says. “So the ad simply reminds you: Remember Scott? It’s absorbent. It does a good job.”

It does—even though it’s still pretty much an extra-thick, double-wide roll of toilet paper.

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