Toilet Paper, Now With More Technology!

What it means that a TP brand went big at SXSW Interactive, which is nominally a tech conference
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The Cottonelle Refresh Lounge (Twitter/MommasGoneCity)

Let's talk bums. 

Or, rather, #letstalkbums. 

That's the hashtag promoted by the toilet paper brand, Cottonelle, at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas.

Yes, a toilet paper brand has a major presence at what is nominally a technology conference. They've created an on-site "Refresh Lounge" and handed out marketing materials with suggested tweets about their TP such as, "If you named your own OS after a Cottonelle product, what would it be called? #Letstalkbums"

And it just got me thinking about the discourse surrounding technology these days. 

Namely, many of the people talking about and (especially) promoting technology for its own sake don't actually work for technology companies. 

What's happened is that non-technology companies have glommed onto the idea that tech is hot. Energy companies, beverage companies, and toilet paper manufacturers have all realized that saying "Innovate!" might make them sound like Steve Jobs to some segment of the American population.

No matter what the product or company, the advice pollster Frank Luntz gave to Republicans on dealing with climate change can be applied: just change the subject to innovation and technology

Cottonelle toilet paper wipes, for example, now comes with SafeFlush technology: "We know that flushability is important, and continuously improving our products is, too. We’ve always had the most dispersible, best performing, flushable wipes. Our new product improvement sets the bar even higher."*

Marketers clearly think that Americans want their companies to be constantly innovating and gamechanging and disrupting. So, they've learned to talk what they believe to be the language of the tech world. Therefore, #letstalkbums. 

The only problem is that the way these companies interpret what technology does is a distorted caricature not only of the reality of the world, but also the way technologists themselves might describe their own significance. 

The idea of technology promoted all over SXSW by brands who want a tech halo means precisely as much as the old marketing phrase, "New and Improved," which is to say, almost nothing. 

In the future, prepare for a supermarket full of goods that read, "Now With More Technology!"

 

* Update: A friend pointed out that SafeFlush is a feature for wipes, not toilet paper, and I've corrected the story accordingly. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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