Thursday, November 01, 2001

Back to the Bottle

It's a paradox of life that when you're a kid, you can't wait to be recognized as an adult, while when you're an adult, you yearn to be a kid. That's why there are few things that upset our 14 year old as much as sitting down in a restaurant and being offered a kiddie menu. Or why your day can be made by the simple act of the bartender asking to see your ID. In both cases, it's the reach across a divide that we all yearn to conquer.

That being said, there are certain benefits to either status. Kids get freedom, boundless energy, fun foods and cartoons. Adults get... well... give me a minute. Actually, more and more, there is little that adults have that kids don't, and conversely, few things that are uniquely kid oriented that are off limits to adults. Like the homogenization of the rest of global culture, there is little out of reach for anyone anywhere.

At the frontier of this trend we find the manufacturer Kimberly Clark. After exhaustive market studies, they recently announced that people prefer to be treated as babies once again, at least in certain areas. According to their data, surveys show that one in four Americans use some kind of moist towelette in the loo. Realizing that most of these are hand or baby wipes, and that 50 million plus individuals were adapting them to another use, they saw a market just waiting to be swabbed. And so they committed $100 million to the development and $40 million to the marketing of Cottonelle Fresh Rollwipes, the latest advance in toilet paper.

The basic package consists of a dispenser that hangs above your regular dry toilet paper and four rolls of the product, all of which sell for $8.99. A set of four replacement rolls will cost $3.99, or about a buck a roll. For that you get a product that, to quote DeWitt Paul, the president of a company making a competing product, "Once you start using it, you wonder how you ever got by without it."

The narrow view is that Kimberly Clark saw a market niche and is moving aggressively to exploit it. But conceivably they have discovered something more. We all know that our culture is focused on all things youth... from fashion to music to food to entertainment. Perhaps we just didn't realize how young is young.

In a world looking eternally for the fountain of youth, maybe there is a huge untapped, unrealized wish among consumers out there to go back even further then most of us realize. Up until now, it's been an article of faith that when most Americans pine for those carefree times, they are referring to their teen and college years. That was when they had the most freedoms and the fewest responsibilities. It was a time of endless possibilities, when the predominant answer was at least as likely to be "yes" as "no."

But compare that with Japan, where the predominant pop culture icons are focused back even further. Sociologists who have studied this have theorized that since Japanese society is so regimented, the last time most Japanese felt unencumbered was not as teenagers, but as children. Recapturing their youth means reliving not the teen years, but prepubescent ones. And so when you ride the subway, you see businessmen and women reading comic books and sporting "Hello Kitty" fobs on their cell phones, and teenage girls with knee socks and backpacks shaped liked stuffed animals.

If you buy this line of reasoning, maybe Americans want to go back further still. Being a teenager is and was hard work... all those trends, all that pressure. And at least in these united states, little kids today are at least as scheduled as their big brothers and sisters, with soccer, gymnastics and play dates. So you have to roll back the calendar even further, and recapture those innocent toddler times. After all, in recent years we've seen adults sucking on lollipops shaped like pacifiers, sporting overalls, flocking to animated movies and snacking on baby skinless carrots. Are adult diaper wipes really that much different in concept?

If you're wondering if this is a movement or a flash in the pan, keep your eyes focused on California. From a cultural standpoint, the Left Coast is ground zero for what is hot and what is not. They led the nation with right-on-red, casual Fridays and other seismic shifts to our culture. If and when this movement gains speed, you'll see it on Rodeo Drive and in Malibu first, after which it'll migrate into the entertainment industry. And if you see Brad Pitt taking a role as Tommy in the live action version of "Rugrats," or Raffi appears on "VH1 Hitmakers," you can assume that the rest of the country will soon follow.

Have we defined a new trend here? We'll leave that for Faith Popcorn, John Naisbett and Alvin Toffler to work out, to create those great shorthand phrases such as "Booming Babies" or "Toddler Tendencies." All we can say for sure that the Baby Boomers of today have the money and the where-with-all to get whatever they want. And so if the mascot of the next Olympics turns out to look a binky, don't say we didn't tell you that it was time to invest in Zwieback futures.


Marc Wollin of Bedford would like to be five again, if only because he likes to dunk his cookies in his milk with no comments from observers. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

No comments: