Toilet Paper, Now With More Technology!

By Alexis C. Madrigal

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. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/03/toilet-paper-now-with-more-technology/284334/