(this note has seven sections and is approx a 10 minute read)
Recently, the Internet was full of news of Toilet papers being hoarded and ‘Bidets’ becoming the most searched word in the US. Videos of people fighting and rushing to stock up toilet paper were getting shared across our current hangout ‘social’ zones.
Did you wonder why this obsession with Toilet paper? Did you also find it bemusing to read about this, as it didn’t make any sense to those of us whose consumption of Toilet paper is as much as that of Avocadoes, even though we might never publicly acknowledge this for any of these two? At a time when we are hoarding food, why would someone hoard Toilet paper?
Given that you might have extra time while you are ‘in the act’, did the thought get triggered that why is it that half the world uses Toilet paper while the other half uses Mugs / Jet sprays? Is there a pattern to this?
As marketers, how do you make sense of this ‘private’ topic? How do you talk about a topic that till now, you have only used in a negative connotation or while cracking derisive jokes?
Interestingly, this is a topic most of us don’t like talking about – One of the elements of Viral Marketing by Jonah Berger is Making the private public – a clear example of how you can talk about a private issue without making others uncomfortable – Bidets and Toilet Papers are a classic use case for that.
If you are curious about the history of this, and how to put these items together, here is a 10 minute read, wherein I have tried to put the anthropological elements and the journey of our backside. Incidentally, all the pieces do have common connections and roots to explain things that we might not be actively seeking answers to. Hopefully, after this note, some preconceived notions will be ‘wiped off’, and you might get ‘splashed’ with a new way to look at the world around you!
Word of Caution – While I have spared gross details, please ensure Curiosity supersedes disgust, wherever applicable!
2. So what is the ‘back-story’ globally, and how did we reach here?
Humans have been around for more than 300,000 years now – and so would be the objective of staying ‘clean’ after the act. How did we…er… go ahead?
For the purpose of sanity, let me stick to behaviors of Home Sapiens, or more specifically, Modern Humans for now (~60,000 years ago).
As discussed in Early Indians (a deeply insightful and inspiring book), the modern Humans who came approx. 60,000 years ago ‘out of Africa’ traveled via Iran towards Pakistan-Indian belt, also called the “Harappan Civilization” – the ancestors of the majority of the readers of this blog.
These Early Indians, along with their Middle & Central Asian counterparts, used what we call the “Lota” for their cleanup act – something that this belt is still proud of – a clear ‘back-up’ for our hygiene!
While most of Indians are a combination of Harappans and Indo-Euroasians (or ‘Aryans’ as we call them), and most of our current habits are taken from either of these two, one good habit we have retained from our Harappan ancestors is definitely a boon during this time!
Also called ‘manual bidet’ in Middle and central Asian belt, some of us might be using Bum Guns or Jet sprays or Hand showers today – a clear hybrid of Lota and Bidets today.
3. The clean ‘Europeans’
A few centuries later, there was another pattern that evolved in Europe at the time the “A.D.” era started – with the Jews..
The Ancient Jews, according to Talmudic sources, practiced the use of small pebbles, often carried in a special bag, and also to the use of dry grass and of the smooth edges of broken pottery jugs.
On ‘the other hand’, the ancient Romans were sophisticated even while going to the bathroom! In first-century Rome, there were over one hundred public bathrooms*, many of them with marble seats, scenes from Greek mythology on the walls, running water and ancient Roman toilet paper provided. With the roman attire of long shirts (with nothing underneath), there wasn’t any challenge of ‘izzat’ and the entire act of defecation was more like a ‘social event’ for them
But what DID they use for ‘cleaning up’? Well, you could use a leaf, a handful of moss or your left hand! But what most Romans used was something called a spongia, a sea-sponge on a long stick. The stick was long because of the design of Roman toilets. Public facilities had a long marble bench with holes on top – for the obvious thing – and holes at the front: for the sponge-sticks. There were no doors or dividing walls. You sat right next to your friend and did what you had to do.
*Please excuse me for replacing the word ‘latrines’ with ‘bathrooms’ – just makes me feel better about writing on this topic! 🙂
After almost 1500-odd years, the Bidet was born, in France in the 1600s as a washing basin for your private parts. It was considered a second step to the chamber pot, and both items were kept in the bedroom or dressing chamber. The main purpose of the bidet for men was when they returned from their horse rides. Gradually, the Bidet moved from the bedroom to the bathroom.
In fact, in Italy, Portugal, and Spain the fitting of bidets in household bathrooms has been mandatory since 1975 – which explains why 97% of households in Italy have bidets today!
4. Anti-Bidet in US
Throughout this bidet boom, the United States resisted its appeal, and the reason might have been the power of first impressions.
As you will see, Bidets recalled all kinds of feminine failings: women’s sexuality, women’s unwanted pregnancies, and women’s biology. As such, they were shunned.
Americans were introduced to bidets on a broad scale during World War II, when troops were stationed in Europe. Soldiers visiting bordellos would often see bidets in the bathrooms, so they began to associate these basins with sex work. Once back home, servicemen would feel squeamish presenting these fixtures to their homeland.
But even before the war, bidets were linked to sex and scandal. In the United States and Britain, bidets were considered a form of birth control. As Norman Haire, a birth-control pioneer, put it in 1936, “The presence of a bidet is regarded as almost a symbol of sin.”
Apart from that, another association was menstruation – when women needed to wash up. As a selling point for bidets, menstruation was possibly on par with unwanted pregnancy and prostitution as undesirable and unspoken during the pre- and postwar years.
As a result, adapting Bidets have had a big difficulty due to this ‘negative’ worldview. Incidentally, Covid is changing this worldview!
What was the alternative?
Across the globe, people mainly used whatever was free and readily available for personal hygiene. Unfortunately, many of the options were quite painful: Wood shavings, hay, rocks, corn cobs, and even frayed anchor cables. Leaves, moss and rags were some of the less-painful (and probably more sanitary) options. Wealthy people used wool, lace or other fabrics.
During such a painful period, our crying bums needed a partner who could wipe off their tears….
Enters our Big Man – the Toilet Paper!!
5. Toilet Paper – Rising from the Ashes (literally)
China was one of the first places to invest Toilet Paper (as always, most of the things originate from our experimental neighbor).
The idea of toilet paper actually dates back to medieval China 6th Century AD, when a Chinese emperor used 2-foot by 3-foot sheets of paper. Paper has been used for thousands of years since then.
Incidentally, for Arabs or Middle Easterns, wiping with the paper was a surprising act. An Arab traveler to China in the year 851 AD remarked:
...they [the Chinese] do not wash with water when they have done their necessities, but they only wipe themselves with paper.
If you remember, Arabs were part of the ‘Lota culture’ which would explain this shock. I am sure some of you would have experienced the same ‘shock’ during your first overseas travel!
6. Why the whole hoarding of Toilet Paper
Now that we have covered the Anthropology of the protagonists and how their empires expanded, without covering any Anatomical aspects, let’s look at the Economical and Psychological elements of what happened a couple of weeks back around the mining of the Freudian Gold (sort of) – Toilet Papers in western economies
While a lot of us have poked fun at how Americans are getting insecure about their wet backsides (with jokes like People in first world countries don’t know what to panic about – or an Australian newspaper printing eight extra pages in one edition as emergency toilet paper), here are 3 key reasons explaining the acts, based on behavioural insights on the entire obsessive-compulsive shopping :
Asserting control – In times of uncertainty, we all want to feel in control of things. And what is the best way to feel in control, as per psychologists? Cleanliness of our backsides!
Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, actually equated feces with gold or money – and how a child has a turning point in his ‘anal phase’ when he learns to relinquish his “gift” (his first gift as the feces are termed).
Since Toilet paper is associated with defecation, that is the first way to assert control over this uncertain period. Its as if we are telling our unconscious selves – ‘If I have a lifelong supply of toilet paper, I’ll never be out of control, never be a helpless, dirty child again.’
Utilitarian Inventory Stacking up – Rationally speaking, this is one category that occupies a lot of space at your place, leading to lower stockpiling at home – people frequent the stores to replenish their stock. Hence, the perceived use-value is high (at least in non-bidet using developed countries), but it’s very utilitarian.
However, the lockdown ensued higher inventory purchase assuming no market visits for next few weeks. So this Utilitarian Anticipatory Anxiety led to panic buying
Economically speaking, it was a temporary shock to a stable supply chain, as the consumption of Toilet Paper wouldn’t change much – so it is only a way to add inventory, which will normalize in few days, leading to equilibrium in the demand-supply equation over the next few weeks.
Fortunately or unfortunately, this is exactly the time when some users might have switched to Bidets or Bum guns as well, probably moving categories permanently.
From a health standpoint, there’s no scientific evidence that bidets are better or worse than toilet paper for cleaning your nether regions in general, but some people with issues like hemorrhoids and pruritus ani (better known as itchy butt) seek bidets out as a gentler alternative to wiping; since it’s hands-free, it can also benefit those with arthritis or other mobility issues.
However, there is a clear benefit from an environmental standpoint. More than seven billion rolls of toilet paper are sold yearly in the United States alone, as Americans use an average of 24 rolls per capita a year – this translates to 27000 trees being consumed daily for toilet paper! Imagine the impact you are making by moving to ‘cleaner’ alternatives (pun intended!)
Clearly, the journey of Humans is in line with their instruments. Hygiene traveled with them, but the practices changed with standards. As the world is getting smaller, so is the device to keep us clean!
Oversimplifying the Map, this is a summary of how the devices spanned across the globe – while this is an oversimplification, this summarizes how the human race evolved in their butt-inary practices!
With more bidets being used, stereotypes have been ignored, hygiene is probably better and Ecological footprint concerns would also be minimized
Maybe some of the users should take a cue from the tagline of “Waterworld” (A name apt for this occasion) – Beyond the horizon lies the secret to a new beginning, just that in this case, the horizon is the nozzle!
As for the US, not sure who will come first – Bidet or Biden, but both of them definitely need to wipe off the crap soon! 🙂
Ah – maybe this part of my thinking should be kept ‘private’!