Gene's plea: Don't take the heart out of toilet paper

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(Eric Shansby)
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Sunday, January 16, 2011

As a credentialed member of the liberal media elite, I bow to no one in my support for lunatic environmental causes. Shut down a cancer-medicine factory to save the habitat of an endangered worm? Sure, why not! But every once in a while, something comes up that makes me say: Enough is enough.

Take Kimberly-Clark's new eco-friendly "Scott Naturals" toilet paper. It's like any other toilet paper roll but without the cardboard tube at the center. When you get to the end, the paper simply slides off your spool. This product rollout (haha) was accompanied by an analogy-intensive advertising campaign pointing out, for example, that the number of cardboard tubes consumed annually "weighs more than 250 Boeing 747 airliners." But there's one thing it didn't point out.

I'm on the phone with Doug Daniels, Kimberly-Clark brand manager, and Joey Mooring, a company PR guy.

Me: Can you explain why this allegedly "improved" product is not just another insidious assault on traditional American family values?

Doug: Well, because it's the right thing to do. American consumers discard 17 billion tubes a year, and the majority of them are tossed immediately into the garbage. It's enough to fill the Empire State building twice. Laid end to end, these tubes could reach to the moon and back, twice.

Me: Noted! Are you aware of the special, cherished place that the "derder" holds as a source of wholesome family entertainment?

Doug: The what?

Me: My God.

Doug:

Me: You are the brand manager for a leading American toilet-paper manufacturer and you do not know what a derder is?

Doug: No.

Joey: I do!

Me: Swell. Doug, a derder is an impromptu kazoo-like musical instrument fashioned by placing one's mouth on the end of a toilet paper tube and tunefully going "der-der-der" into it . This cheap and innocent toy has delighted children of all ethnicities and socioeconomic strata since the invention of the toilet paper roll in 1877. That is what you are throwing out as though it were garbage. That is this thing you never heard of! How old are you, Doug?

Doug: Uh, 36.

Joey: I'm older.

Me: See, there's the problem. It's generational. The derder is an endangered species. Like Yiddish, or good penmanship, we have been slowly losing it to cultural indifference. The very concept of "fun" has become commercialized; its no longer a spontaneous product of individual ingenuity, but a commodity to be purchased in the form of, say, "apps." My 20something friend Caitlin knew what a derder was but not how it got its name. That is because when she was growing up, her mom used it not as a musical instrument, but as a humane yet effective way to discipline the family dog, Gretel. Such is the enduring, versatile magic of the derder. Would Kimberly-Clark prefer that dogs be punished with ball-peen hammers?

Doug:

Joey: Okay, I'm going to jump in here. The launch of this product is a great opportunity to reduce waste.

Me: So, can we agree that your company advocates abusing animals and is philosophically opposed to nurturing imagination in little children?

Joey: It's good for society and good for the environment.

Me: Boy, you guys know how to stay on message!

Joey: At end of the day, from a sustainability standpoint, taking steps to reduce our carbon footprint is the right thing to do.

So that was that. I didn't budge them an inch. I think they may not have understood that I was a serious journalist, making a serious point. Or, possibly, they may just be too focused on, you know, the bottom line, such as moving Scott's market position in toilet paper from number two to number one.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com.


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