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Open Letter

Who knew there could be anything more annoying in this benighted world than the classic 70s yellow smiley face? Yet that phenomenon does exist: your ads for the Washlet.

As anyone who has looked at any website in the past few months knows, Washlet ads feature physically fit, mostly female butts with a smiley face drawn on them. They look like pages out of a very staid porno magazine that's been found by some kids with magic markers. One keeps hoping to see a beard, glasses or big nose scrawled on these posteriors as well, but no - it's always the irritating smiley faces and your vaguely menacing motto, "Clean is happy." Are you sure you didn't get that out of Animal Farm?

You are a Japanese company - "Toto" is your true name - so you can be excused for not understanding that here, smiley faces are the visual equivalent of a bullet in the kneecap. This is due to the smiley face's former ubiquity, but also its unholy resurrection by Wal-Mart. The American advertising company that came up with this campaign really should know better.

The ad campaign raises two issues: the taste of the ads, and the implications of the product itself, a toilet seat which turns any commode into a high-tech bidet, ranging from about $545 to $1,400 on factoryoutlet.com. For a toilet with "integrated" Washlet, you're talking $2,400 to $3,900.

First, let's describe the Washlet. A command panel, often mounted on a wall, allows users to control a stream of "aerated water" toward various sections of their bottoms. As the website puts it, you can choose from "pulsating, self-cleanse and oscillate modes." The Washlet will also dry you off with warm air, heat the seat, filter the toilet atmosphere, and even create noise to cover the sound of urination or defecation. You're supposed to use it, always, instead of toilet paper. The website declares that toilet paper merely "distributes" the problem.

When the Washlet's water is switched on, a small wand emerges from the back of the seat and sprays. The advancing wand looks rather ominous - it puts me in mind of the alien technology on The X-Files that drills teeth or extracts eggs from ovaries of humans abducted onto spaceships. I don't think I'd want to turn my back on something like that, much less my backside. On The X-Files, people have to be strapped down to get that kind of treatment.

Of course, your ads don't show the Washlet; toilet seats are significantly less photogenic than women's asses. One can divine the true nature of a Washlet only by clicking on the website link. For months, I refused to do that, out of irritated principle. Last week I finally relented, and now I realize the ad campaign is extraordinarily expensive - because the website actors must get paid well enough to move and establish new identities in a kind of capitalist witness protection program.

See, the homepage features a line of six butts. They change rapidly like a slot machine before settling into hindquarters that match the faces which finally replace them - white male butts for the two white guys, dark-skinned female butt for the lone dark-skinned woman, and a fringe of black hair waving above the butt that belongs to a long-haired Asian woman.

Yes, I realize you probably used butt doubles, like in the movies, and they're all in perfect shape with nary a hint of cellulite or sagging muscle. Still. The actors do a tremendous job of exuding complete confidence while kneeling next to the Washlet, sitting on it, and even reclining luxuriously on it with one arm draped over the toilet tank. But how do you go home or to the local grocery store after taping something like that?

As for the ads, some people find them offensive, but apparently not very many. Earlier this summer, the Rev. Neil Rhodes filed suit to prevent a two-story banner featuring numerous grinning rear ends from being hung on the building housing his Times Square Church in Manhattan. The reverend was accommodated by a large white stripe across the middle of the ad, covering the most objectionable portion of the bottoms, and that was that. An Ad Age columnist complained about Times Square becoming so prudish.

Personally, I'm not offended, per se. We see nearly as much of the backsides of a lamentable percentage of the population these days on a daily basis. It's enough to make you wish punk was back in, or even Frank Sinatra. I'd much rather see lots of colorful Mohawks or fedoras on the streets than people's bums.

But I'm still disgusted. Face it, Toto: You are using women's naked butts in the most audacious manner possible to sell your product. Objectification is a given when you crop a photo down to just a tush and draw a face on it. Don't bother insisting that your ads and website include men's rear ends too. The vast majority of the cans are female, and the occasional male sample is clearly used for the deniability factor, and perhaps secondarily to reach the gay male market segment.

As for the Washlet itself, it seems to me the epitome of the modern obsession with hygiene. It's hard for me to picture a circumstance other than a nearly fatal case of food poisoning which would require the use of a Washlet. If one is reasonably healthy, toilet paper seems sufficient, because there really shouldn't be a whole lot left on your rump to "distribute," as the Washlet people like to say. As for urination, let's be real: men don't even bother with toilet paper after this bodily function. A couple of jiggles and they figure they're good to go. And, of course, here in the U.S. we shower daily.

In fact, hygiene obsession is usually associated with the West, and primarily with Americans. Americans snicker at Europeans for their lax shower habits and return from the East with terrifying tales of squat toilets. Yet Toto is a Japanese company, and various sources claim Washlets now adorn half or over 60 percent of Japanese homes. The saturated market there (no double entendre intended, but now that I notice it, why not?) explains the current attempted expansion in the U.S. So it would seem that America is now importing not just everything we used to manufacture here, but also our own stupid hang-ups.

Look, you have to be a bit prudish to believe a lower body shower is necessary after every bathroom visit, much less think an expensive electronic device is required to cover the sound of peeing. Time magazine reporter Hannah Beech in Tokyo noted that the sound function is an ecological boon in Japan, where many Japanese used to "camouflage the sound of their ablutions by flushing, thereby wasting tons of water." We Americans might call that "anal."

Yet it is Americans who are scorned for our alleged Puritanism, when we're not being criticized for our sex-crazed pop culture defiling the rest of the globe. And a friend's brother who has lived in Japan for years - who owns and loves a Washlet - tells me the smiley butt ads are a purely American phenomenon, not used in Japan. While Japanese advertising can be "reasonably risque," he says, he can think of no outright nudity.

Unfortunately, Washlet company, this is a battle that I fear you are sure to win. My friend's brother says you "super rule," and if he moved back here, he doesn't think he could live without one. When I tossed out the whole Washlet concept to some friends at lunch the other day, I think I got you some new customers.

You should warn Washlet wannabes, however. They can be dangerous. When my friend visited her brother in Japan last year, she had this run-in with a Washlet: "I used it and then zipped up, but then somehow I turned on the bidet fountain and it sprayed me in the crotch of my jeans until I could get my hands in front of the spray, leaving only my foot to try to figure out which was the 'off' button."

Clean and Happy Enough,

Cate Plys

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Comments? Open Letter is open to letters. Please include a real name to be considered for publication.

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See who else Cate has been writing to in the Open Letter archive.




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Posted on October 4, 2007


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