A few years back, the founders of Squatty Potty had a problem. Their product is a plastic footstool that wraps around the base of a toilet to elevate the feet and make going to the bathroom easier. Its founders say that changing the sitting angle unkinks the colon, making for a more natural and satisfying experience. But advertising such a product is difficult. The company’s previous attempts to explain the benefits of squatting veered from the scientific to the euphemistic; one TV ad featured a woman Hula-Hooping in a “healthy colon” T-shirt.
Then the founders of Squatty Potty turned to a marketing firm called Harmon Brothers, known for turning gross into gold.
“Taboo products, if we believe in them, are our specialty,” says Jeffrey Harmon, a co-owner and one of four Harmon brothers involved in the company.
Harmon Brothers, based in Provo, Utah, earned its reputation with funny, in-your-face ads for a tongue scraper meant to conquer bad breath and a before-you-go anti-odor spray for the toilet bowl. The firm’s work has appeared mostly online, which means its ads can flout the time and taste restrictions of traditional advertising.
The three-year-old company has tapped into a growing openness to discuss the most intimate details of health and hygiene. Harmon says the question he and colleagues ask themselves when tackling a disgusting topic is, “How do we make it so that people want to talk about this at the dinner table?”
The answer for Squatty Potty turned out to be a rollicking three-minute YouTube ad released last fall featuring a doe-eyed animatronic unicorn, a prince and piles of rainbow-colored ice cream. The result, which Adweek described as “an absurdist fever-dream,” manages to normalize the baser aspects of bodily function by transporting them to a fantasy realm and has garnered more than 100 million views on YouTube and Facebook.
Squatty Potty had previously gained notoriety when Howard Stern praised it on his radio show and when the company appeared on “Shark Tank.” The unicorn ad helped the company’s founders — Bobby Edwards and his parents, Judy and Bill, of St. George, Utah — realize their demographic wasn’t just what Bobby calls the “low-hanging fruit” of women age 45 and up, but also millennials and bathroom-users everywhere. For three months after its debut, the family saw a 600 percent increase in online sales and a 400 percent increase in retail sales over the same period the year before. Bobby Edwards says the ad transformed his product from something you’d hide in the shower before guests arrived into a conversation piece.
“You’ve got a Squatty Potty — oh, cool!” is how Edwards imagines such conversations. The same can’t necessarily be said for Squatty Potty’s competitors like the Lillipad, which is similar in concept but made of wood, or Nature’s Platform, which takes squatting to another level by encircling the toilet seat with a platform you have to climb on top of to do your business.
Harmon Brothers, which along with other ad companies has been reflecting and shaping our new comfort with bathroom matters, happens to be headed by Mormons acutely attuned to the art of selling, not to mention matters of taste and propriety. The brothers grew up poor in Idaho farm country, in a family of nine siblings. As children, they learned business basics and consumer psychology while doing things like hawking potatoes door-to-door and amassing a small empire of dairy cows. They don’t swear, and they’ve turned down work from alcohol companies because they don’t drink. But, as Jeffrey Harmon puts it, “There’s nothing in my beliefs that says, ‘You can’t talk about poo.’ ”
Until recently, the ad world often reinforced disgust over the body’s functions. Historian Juliann Sivulka says ads for personal hygiene products started appearing more in the 1920s, in response to forces including the spread of indoor plumbing and a rise in cleanliness standards. They coincided with advertising’s growing reliance on emotional appeals. Quickly, ad men learned to prey on consumers’ insecurities with fear-based “whisper copy.” A 1920 ad for an antiperspirant called Odorono featured a “Chicago girl” confessing her shame upon learning her sweaty armpits were “the cause of my unpopularity among men.”
In the ’30s, says Sivulka, author of “Stronger Than Dirt: A Cultural History of Advertising Personal Hygiene in America, 1875 to 1940,” advertisers desperate to boost sales went further. ScotTissue ran ads saying the wrong kind of toilet paper could cause “at least 15 painful diseases” and land children in the hospital.
They also relied on euphemism, and on scientific terminology (words like halitosis) that projected authority and offered new language for problems considered too intimate to name.
But lately, for a host of reasons, Americans have begun talking about things that once embarrassed them. New York Magazine recently ran “The Everything Guide to Poop.” We’re seeing the rise of “period feminism”: women talking about their periods, photographing their periods and running the London Marathon while free-bleeding. So many intimate matters have been Instagrammed, it’s hard to get worked up about privacy anymore.
There is no one reason. “I think a lot of roads lead to Kardashian,” says MediaPost media critic Barbara Lippert, of the reality TV family that has invited audiences along with them on visits to the gynecologist. There’s also the popularity of apps to track bodily functions, and bidet attachments. Probiotics are in, the microbiome is in, and fecal transplants might just save us all.
Whether the ad world has followed or led is one of those chicken-or-egg questions. But the Wall Street Journal reported last year that across the world, ads “for toilet cleaners, toilet paper and air fresheners are flush with potty humor.” And the brand Thinx has run beautiful, clever subway ads that in no way shy away from what its period panties do, while HelloFlo sells things like a “period starter kit” and has created frank, funny Internet ads about menstruation and postpartum incontinence. The latter involves women dancing playfully while singing about how sneezing makes them pee.
Playful online ads like those by Harmon Brothers are leading the way because the medium not only allows but encourages them to. Julie Cottineau, author of “Twist: How Fresh Perspectives Build Breakthrough Brands,” says social media has changed expectations for advertising. The privacy and control of watching online allow provocative messages to feel less threatening, and the ethos of the medium rewards pushing boundaries. Cottineau says when ads appear online “you’re more open to be informed, entertained and maybe even prodded into thinking about things differently.”
Bobby Edwards had been following the success of the Harmon brothers for years before he contacted them about advertising the Squatty Potty. He knew about the work Jeffrey Harmon had done straight out of Brigham Young University, when he created online spots for a tongue scraper called Orabrush featuring a dude in a giant tongue costume. In 2010, Orabrush’s breakthrough ads and tens of thousands of YouTube subscribers attracted the attention of “Nightline” and the New York Times.
Then Edwards saw the Harmon Brothers’ spot for Poo-Pourri, the before-you-go anti-odor spray. In it, a posh, pearl-wearing British lady sits on the toilet, talking in astonishingly graphic terms. Jeffrey Harmon says the concept was inspired by something he’d noticed as a missionary in Ireland: upper-crust accents refine the coarsest jokes. The resulting ad worked, by elevating the topic and by offering the irony of the unexpected. Edwards says he was “floored” by how it made a disgusting topic somehow ... charming.
But the bar for Squatty Potty was higher than for Poo-Pourri because selling the squatting position meant talking not about odor, which is hard enough, but about the internal workings of the body. The Harmon Brothers’ solution was to create a fairy-tale setting so delightful and delicious (ice cream, remember, is a key feature) that it could not possibly be gross. They went surreal.
It took longer for the others to buy into the Harmons’ vision. Squatty Potty’s investors were dubious, as were the elder Edwardses, Judy and Bill. They preferred a safer concept built around an English garden with topiary. Jeffrey Harmon says he argued for the unicorn idea because of how “netty” it felt, inspired as it was by an old meme about unicorns that fart rainbows. “If you do the unicorn,” Jeffrey told Bill, who was confounded by the concept, “the Internet will altogether say, ‘You understand us. You get who we are.’ ”
At last, Bobby Edwards says, the family decided to take a risk on “this crazy, wackadoo unicorn,” and not to tell their investors.
The way the Squatty Potty spot manages to go right up to the boundaries of taste without stepping over may be due to its creators, which include a writer recruited from a sketch comedy show popular among Mormons. (For one thing, “swearing — using the ‘shiz word,’ to use the Mormon term — would be going too far,” says Daniel Harmon, the company’s creative director.)
Perhaps it takes people highly attuned to the fault lines of culture to know how far they can push things. After all, it’s hard to explain what separates the (barely) tasteful from the obscene. Like porn, you know it when you see it. And while bodily elimination, properly presented, doesn’t cross lines for them, plenty of other things do. Several of the Harmon brothers run a separate company called VidAngel, which allows users to filter out what Daniel Harmon has called “the bosoms, blood and bad words” from Hollywood films.
Jeffrey Harmon says he likes the niche his company has cornered, but he also wants to demonstrate its creative range. He points out that, in addition to being at work on a new spot for another Squatty Potty product, Harmon Brothers has also been pursuing non-taboo projects, including a campaign for a mattress company and work on a huge Christmas event filmed in Provo in 2014, which broke the Guinness World Record for most living figures in a Nativity scene.
At a recent conference, Harmon showed the company’s work for Poo-Pourri and Squatty Potty. “People asked, ‘Do you just do poop videos?’ ” he says. “And I was like, ‘No, we also do videos about Jesus.’ ”
Libby Copeland is a former Post staff writer. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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