Charmin’s “Soft” Sell to Consumers

Behind many packages of toilet paper covered in bears and babies lies an untold tale of clearcut forests and carbon emissions.
Credit: Art by Courtenay Lewis

Written with research and contributions from Ashley Jordan

Every day, we’re bombarded with carefully cultivated advertising messaging. From websites to Instagram influencers, companies tell the public what to want and why we should want it. Diamonds, now the ubiquitous symbol of eternal love, only became the go-to engagement ring because of a relentless De Beer’s advertising campaign that told us “diamonds are forever.” Tissue products are no different. For decades, toilet paper brands like Charmin have told their customers what they want, and that’s softness. The problem is, they haven’t told us the full story. Behind many packages of toilet paper covered in bears and babies lies an untold tale of clearcut forests and carbon emissions.

Charmin’s primary pushback to recent calls to make their toilet paper more sustainable is that it’s not what people want. Yet Charmin is making judgment calls about people’s preferences after feeding the public delightful narratives of bear families and images of snuggly koalas, and continuously pointing to softness as a characteristic consumers should want in their toilet paper. A new poll shows, however, that when people are given the chance to pull back the sugarcoated advertising and see the full environmental ramifications of their purchases, they’ll often make a completely different choice.                                            

150 years ago, there was no market for toilet paper. In fact, advertisers didn’t even know how to talk about such a taboo subject. In the early 20th century, some marketing masterminds came up with a genius solution: focus on femininity and softness rather than directly talking about what toilet paper actually does. It was a hit. Charmin, along with other major toilet paper brands, took this tactic and ran with it. “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin,” an ad campaign showing shoppers who couldn’t help squeezing rolls of toilet paper because they were so soft, made the ad’s spokesman, Mr. Whipple, more recognizable to Americans than Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. Now, the Charmin bears revel in its softness thanks to parent company Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) $7 billion annual advertising budget. Procter & Gamble is the self-proclaimed world’s biggest advertiser, and the United States’ uniquely intense obsession with softness shows how successful these and other ad campaigns have been. The problem is, this softness currently comes at a cost.

Peggy Olsen, an ad copywriter on the show Mad Men, once said, “If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the narrative.” And that’s what advertising does: sleights of hand to shift narratives to what companies want consumers to focus on, with little to no mention of the product’s externalities. Joe Camel said that smoking cigarettes made you “cool.” He conveniently ignored the direct link between smoking and severe health problems like cancer and emphysema. Diamonds show eternal love. Never mind the conflicts their illegal trade funded, and the human rights abuses their extraction caused. Sure, it’s easy for Charmin to say we all want soft toilet paper, because Charmin told us to want softness while conveniently omitting its true costs for forests and the climate. Each minute, an area the size of 7 NHL hockey rinks is logged in the boreal, driven partly by U.S. demand for tissue products. This is taking a devastating toll on communities, species, and the global climate. But you don’t see that in a Charmin ad.

We all know that advertising sugarcoats products. But the problem comes when companies like Procter & Gamble start confusing what they have told people to want with what people actually want. As it turns out, when people discover the environmental consequences of their purchases, their desires change. A recent poll by NRDC and showed that 62% of Americans would be concerned if they knew their toilet paper were made by clear-cutting globally important forests, and that 85% want toilet paper and tissue sector companies to use more environmentally responsible materials. Without any context, of course people opt for softer toilet paper. But when the full environmental impacts come to light, the calculus changes. And, until consumers have all the information, it’s awfully presumptuous to say what people do and do not want. So, Charmin, why not tell the full story?

Charmin could achieve both softness and more sustainable toilet paper. Humanity put a man on the moon—we can make soft toilet paper out of recycled materials and alternative fibers. And Charmin has the budget to do it. Each year, P&G spends an average of $2 billion in research & development. If P&G can make a toothbrush that tells us when we’ve missed a spot, it can make a toilet paper that doesn’t drive global forest loss.

Procter & Gamble should come “Charmin clean” with the full environmental impact of their products before deciding what people actually want. Until they do, we’re doing it for them. You can lend your voice to let Charmin know that you care about the forests and want to stop flushing them down our toilets. Charmin, people are calling for a stop to the needless waste—why not make “soft and sustainable” your next big selling point?