Posted by Mark Gause ● April 24, 2020

The Untold Story Behind the Pandemic: The Branding of TP

It’s day 42 of the social distancing, self-quarantine, stay home and work from home policies which surpassed the “15 days to flatten the curve” or “30 days to slow the spread” plans. Naturally, as a B-Corp, idgroup was ahead of the curve and an early adopter to do good, or at the very least, do no harm.


So here I sit, at one of my multiple makeshift home office locations—dining room table, kitchen island, living room, front porch and carriage house—my laptop open and staring back at me as if it was mocking me as I contemplate what challenging writing assignments and Zoom meetings are on the docket. 

Not to disappoint, my mind takes a creative leap and conjures up aisles of empty store shelves squeezed dry. Haunting images of racks and racks where packages of toilet paper once occupied. If you were ever curious about how people would act in a pandemic, now we know. They hoard TP. Single ply, two ply, every ply they can pry into their carts. They fill their cupboards to capacity. Squeeze every last roll out of the stores and supply chain. 

Not to risk damaging their brands with pre-pandemic ads that all a sudden feel tone-deaf, brand managers and product managers at Proctor & Gamble, Kimberly Clark, and other TP manufacturers paused their advertising and pulled their campaigns from the shelf. They put the Charmin bears into hibernation, the Angel Soft cherubs on furlough and give the shiny hinny song a rest. 

The Cottonelle brand went further by changing their messaging to urge consumers to stop hoarding toilet paper, asking them to "share a square" with friends and neighbors in need. Cottonelle also donated $1 million and 1 million rolls of toilet paper to the United Way's COVID-19 Community Response and Recovery Fund, and pledged $1 for every social media post using the hashtag #ShareASquare, up to $100,000, through June. The Charmin brand is donating nearly 50,000 rolls of toilet paper to firehouses in every state. 

Toilet paper? Every wonder what role branding played in marketing this product category?    

Over the last 50 years or more, legendary and highly criticized branding campaigns have elevated this low-interest, commodity goods category. None more notable, than the one created by a junior copywriter at Benton & Bowles in 1964. John Chervokas, the advertising man and wordsmith credited with introducing a toilet paper slogan into popular culture with his "Please Don't Squeeze the Charmin" campaign.

The slogan was delivered by Mr. Whipple, a fictional supermarket manager, who scolded customers who squeezed the Charmin. The premise for the campaign was inspired by shoppers who squeezed fruit to evaluate its firmness before buying. Mr. Whipple’s signature plea, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin” became the punchline since not even Mr. Whipple himself could resist Charmin’s softness, and often gave in to the temptation to squeeze when no one was looking.

Toilet paper mascots are nothing new in advertising. As far back as the 1920s, brands like Scott and Charmin had used a variety of figures on packaging that had positive connotations—things like babies, angels and puppies. 

These mascots were necessary in a time when being explicit about the quality of toilet paper was virtually forbidden. Until 1890, magazines wouldn’t even accept ads for toilet tissue. That year, The Atlantic agreed to print a photo of a package but didn’t allow any advertising copy to accompany it. And prior to 1975, television commercials weren’t allowed use of the phrase toilet paper. It was “bathroom tissue.” 

Times have changed. For those of us who are inspired to create great advertising, there’s no shortage of inspirational commercials. Apple 1984 Super Bowl commercial to introduce the Macintosh computer, conceived by Chiat/Day and directed by Ridley Scott, makes everybody’s Top 10 List. But many cringe at the commercials in this low interest category. It has been written by others that no advertising character or campaign is hated more by creative types than Mr. Whipple and the Please don’t squeeze the Charmin. Luke Sullivan, an award-winning copywriter at Fallon McElligott, went as far as to title his guide to creating great ads, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This!

Yet, Mr. Whipple made Charmin the best-selling bathroom tissue in America. The campaign ran for more than 20 years. In a poll from the 70s, Mr. Whipple was the #1 most recognized face in America. #2 was President Jimmy Carter.

Whether you liked Mr. Whipple or hated him. He did his job. He made the needle move. Even during this pandemic his ghost walks empty TP store aisles for a large number of consumers who would welcome the chance to squeeze the Charmin again.

Given a choice, racks full of products, branding matters. Brand preference is a proven factor in the buying decision. Branding moves consumers to buy not just what’s on sale or what is the cheapest, but what they know, what they trust, what they associate with and what they perceive to have a higher value. Same is true for TP. Same reason we do what we do. That’s the untold story here for some, but not us and our colleagues in the business of branding.

References: The Big Squeeze: How Mr. Whipple Made Advertising History by Jake Rossen; Falling in Love with a Famously Bad Ad Campaign by Mark Spector; 'A Seismic Shock":Jittery Companies Pull Back on Ads During Pandemic By Tiffany Hsu

Topics: Branding, Marketing, Coronavirus