Never thought I’d write a column about number twos, but here goes …

Can the power of advertising change a nation’s bathroom habits? If so, it begins with something I did not expect to see on TV this week: Madeleine Sami talking about number twos.

“We all do number twos. I’ve been doing it since day one.” Okay, there’s an opening line I haven’t heard before.

Sami is fronting a commercial for Kleenex that suggests there’s a better way to conduct our business. A fresher way.

“When I was asked by Kleenex Cottonelle to take the fresh test I felt a bit awkward,” Sami says, heading into the bathroom with a shy grin. “But recently,” she continues, “I’ve been re-educated.”

Welcome to the next generation of toilet paper technology: wet wipes.

Hang on. Wet wipes have been around for ages, haven’t they? We’ve just never used them in the toilet.

Sorry, I should stop calling them wet wipes. These are “flushable cleansing cloths”. Very important difference, especially that flushable part.

The Kleenex sales pitch is that dry toilet paper is insufficient without a flushable cleansing cloth chaser.

“They’re lightly moistened. It’s the freshest my bum has ever felt.” Here Sami giggles, having just got to say “number twos” and now “the freshest my bum has ever felt” on TV.

“It’s dry, then wet, for the freshest feeling yet.”

In order to convince us to buy flushable cleansing cloths this commercial has to first broach an icky subject and then it has to start normalizing the idea of, basically, baby wipes for grown ups.

With those hurdles in mind, the ad is a smart piece of work. I’m guessing it’s the start of a much broader marketing campaign by Kleenex. The goal? Sell lots of product. The method? Change our approach to the way we’ve been doing ablutions ever since toilet paper was invented. No big deal.

Only a few weeks ago I heard the very same thing discussed on The TED Radio Hour, which I often listen to as a podcast. It was an episode about branding and they got talking about toilet paper.

Flushable cleansing clothes (“moist towelettes” in America) have apparently been around for a while, but they have never been marketed successfully. Even though, when you pause for thought, they make a lot of sense. This, from UK advertising guru Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather:

“If you look at it rationally, no one will go out in the garden and get their hands dirty, say, re-potting a plant … and go: ‘Gosh I’ve got mud on my hands. Clearly the thing I must do now is rub them very vigorously with dry paper to ensure that they’re clean.’ You’d use water.”

Sutherland’s theme is that advertising is key to changing our perception about the value of a product. If we want flushable wipes to become socially acceptable, advertisers will need to come to our rescue.

He cites the story of the 18th century King of Prussia who re-branded the potato by declaring it a royal vegetable, henceforth to be grown under guard. A product no one would touch suddenly became something desirable that people wanted to steal and grow for themselves.

The Smithsonian website has a great article about how advertisers convinced Americans that they smelled bad in order to boost deodorant sales. Deodorant was regarded with suspicion in the early 20th century. The marketing solution was to re-brand perspiration as a social faux pas. Deodorant took off.

We’ve been rubbing ourselves clean with toilet paper for years. Can advertisers re-brand toilet paper as being too dry for a proper job? It’ll be no mean feat but Kleenex is apparently ready to give it a crack.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 11 July 2014. Rewiped with permission.