I miss Mister Whipple.
The prim TV grocer’s pursed lips and disapproving glare were apparently all it took to move toilet paper off those shelves back when the Earth was young. Remember the giggling gaggle of housewives who’d give his display a surreptitious squish? Please don’t squeeze the Charmin!
Those were the days — when prime-time television dared to push the envelope only with innuendo. The ladies’ giddy glee hinted, but barely, at the delight a certain brand of toilet paper would deliver in your bathroom. It seems unbearably quaint today that Charmin’s ads were considered a bit risqué when the first debuted 1964. By the 1970s, a national survey revealed George Whipple was the third best-known figure in American life, right after Richard Nixon and Billy Graham.
Good times! Network TV made his obsession a household word without ever pronouncing the word t-o-i-l-e-t. We deemed some things unmentionable — though hinting was OK.
Russ and I were reminiscing about the Whipple era as we half-watched “Sixty Minutes” and “Madame Secretary” on a lazy Sunday night. We’d just absorbed the gazillionth consecutive ad extolling diarrhea when it struck us: The grittiest, most gut-wrenching drama we witness is packed into commercials.
We’d mostly spent the past two hours being indoctrinated about the frailty of our bowels. Whether the next ad extolled a panacea for constipation or the most exhilarating roll of tissue to perfect the bathroom experience, nearly every commercial message focused on matters once considered unmentionable.
When, exactly, did television advertising come to focus below the belt? In the days when racy Mister Whipple pushed the limits, our parents were — at first — aghast: Why would you even advertise toilet paper? Doesn’t everyone already buy it?
History has taught us their bathroom horizons were sadly stunted. Ol’ George (who, we learned, would sneak in a squeeze or two himself when the customers weren’t looking) has been long replaced by a host of cagey characters who butt into our TV time, desperately battling to win this particular game of thrones.
Charmin’s bear family settles, once and for all, that old question about whether a bear does its business in the woods. Nope. Mama Bear confesses, again and again, that she pampers her little poopers, along with bumbling Papa, with cushiony ultra-soft rolls of luxury.
In the land of Cottonelle, the most annoying Brit ever to cross the pond confronts strangers with queries how they “clean their bums.” Really. Then, after finding Nirvana, she advises them to ditch their now-redundant underwear: “Go commando!”
How can you top that, you ask? Leave it to Northern, with its poignant observations from Sir Froggy — an amphibious toilet-paper holder imbued with a poet’s sensitive soul. Northern tissue users can forget the whole experience, he laments … but he can never look away.
And it doesn’t stop with what Sir Froggy can’t forget. Speaking for most of Minnesota, I think we’d survived just fine not knowing the Mankato neighborhood includes a town named Kiester. Now, our happy innocence is gone … thanks to the TV pitchwoman who tours it on her bicycle, then says: “If you can get comfortable talking about this Kiester, then you can get comfortable using Preparation H for any sort of discomfort in yours.” Talk about being the butt of a joke!
My father-in-law, a polite and gentle man, spent his career behind the counter of his drugstore, where he handled customers’ health questions and hygiene needs with the utmost degree of confidential respect. They conferred in quiet voices across the high counter that separated the pharmacy from commercial nostrums and other essentials not fit for polite conversation. Discretion was planted deep in the genes of his profession. Even his stock of certain frank necessities like Kotex was modestly wrapped in blank butcher paper.
Toilet paper commercials and their hush-hush absorbent cousins — pantyliners, disposable briefs and, frankly, adult diapers — are, of course, only part of the focus below the belt. What would that discreet pharmacist have thought of living room chatter about irritable bowel syndrome — starring an actress costumed as abdominal pain and diarrhea? Or dancing diabetics and bladder-leakage victims? Or the hearty construction worker laughing over his doc’s cheery reaction to opioid-induced constipation – “How long have you been holding this in?”
And never forget the most notorious of the TMI invasion: that come-hither siren dressed in slinky blue, longing for her Prince Charming with his little blue pill.
The American Medical Association has called for a ban on direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs and medical products, saying it drives demand for the highest-priced pharmaceuticals even when less expensive alternatives may work better. A 2016 poll by the Harvard School of Public Health found nearly two-thirds of the public agrees.
But it’s not likely to happen … not anytime soon. It works, and works well. Network television viewers are older than ever before — one trade group estimates their average age today at 54 — delivering the perfect demographic for viewers concerned with advancing age, both their parents’ and their own. Accumulating birthdays come with more aches and pains than candles, of aches and pains than candles, making the nightly news and “NCIS” near-perfect platforms for hawking everything from Milk of Magnesia to hip replacements.
And the toilet tissue industry, with Mister Whipple at the head, was the very first to seize it. Why else do you suppose broadcast TV was built around those convenient commercial breaks? They’re the perfect time to get another cup of coffee … then head for the plumbing.