In the summer, sanitary ware manufacturer Toto Ltd., best known for its Washlet bidet toilets, launched an aggressive advertising blitz in the United States to woo Americans who have long shied away from such a product as strange, unnecessary — and a little bit embarrassing.
Toto set up a billboard ad in Times Square in New York, splashing the images of six naked people seen from behind, with their buttocks covered with a wide white bar. The company also launched a Web site titled Clean is Happy, featuring the image of naked buttocks with smiley faces.
In fact, Toto’s original billboard ad would have featured naked buttocks, but it decided to run the covered version after a local church complained. Toto keeps the original naked “happy buttocks” image in its online ad.
The billboard ad was taken down at the end of August, but Toto said it continues to challenge the U.S. market with hopes of eventually overcoming such resistance.
“We aim to raise awareness and propose a new lifestyle — washing buttocks with water after your business is done — by depicting the buttocks with a smile, a universal icon for happiness,” said Hirokazu Sunamura, in charge of Toto’s international business. “The message is, Washlet is the only thing to make your buttocks pleasant.”
The happy buttocks ads are a part of Toto’s new Washlet integrated marketing campaign to neutralize the taboo factor in U.S. bathroom habits and anatomy by encouraging Americans to take care of their backsides.
Washlet, a generic term for Toto’s high-tech toilet, is a warmed toilet seat with bidet that sprays hot water from underneath and dries with air. The latest Washlet, a model with a record low 5.5 liters per flush, compared with the standard 6.0-liter model, offers an oscillating spray massage and includes air deodorizer as well as a sensor-equipped lid that automatically opens, closes and flushes after the user is finished.
The company has its focus more strongly on American buttocks as the Japanese market is close to being saturated. More than 60 percent of Japanese households are already tricked out with a bidet. The limited demand at home and fierce competition with rival Inax Corp. have brought down prices over the years. Toilet makers are therefore aiming to sell their high-tech toilets to the very rich overseas.
Overseas business accounted for more than 11 percent of overall sales in business 2006, which ended last March 31, and sales and profits ramped up in the U.S., the No. 1 foreign market, followed by markets that include China, Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East to cash in on their strong economic growth, as well as Europe.
Toto said its sales totaled ¥56.7 billion in business 2006 and expects sales to reach ¥68.5 billion in business 2007, which ends next March. The company aims to increase its overseas sales to 20 percent of its overall sales in the next 10 years and to more than half in 30 years.
“In China, households show off a Toto toilet as proof of being very rich,” company spokesman Yasuhiko Matsumoto said. The company aims to raise awareness and pitch luxury products to career women in their 30s to tap into China’s rapidly growing economy.
Back in the U.S., the biggest obstacle is probably the cultural issue. Many Americans find discussing toilets and buttocks awkward.
However, Toto’s Sunamura is optimistic that attitudes will change and Americans will eventually let down their guard, helped by marketing campaigns and word of mouth.
He would not disclose the number of bidet seats Toto has sold in the U.S. so far, but he did say the number of units shipped more than doubled in business 2006 compared with business 2002.
Shigetaka Fukuoka, in charge of international business operations at Inax, agrees.
“Americans are very conservative until they give it a try. Only celebrities who came to Japan have bought the toilet. I don’t think ordinary people would feel uncomfortable if they used it,” he said.
“The big challenge is to create a buzz and let them try.”
To be sure, the Washlet is still foreign to Americans, but Inax’s Fukuoka is also optimistic. He admits it will take a long time before Americans generally become comfortable with bidets as even in Japan it took about 20 years before Washlets were commonly used.
He estimated that such high-tech toilets with warm-water sprays, including Toto’s Washlet and Inax’s Shower-toilet, sell some 3.5 million units in Japan and more than 30,000 units in the U.S. annually.
Toto’s Washlet first gained public attention after the company discovered the best spray angle — 43 degrees from horizontal — and carried a promotional phrase in 1982, “Oshiri datte Arattehoshii” (Even buttocks want to be cleaned). “It was very sensational (to talk about buttocks in public) at that time, but it contributed to the recognition of the bidet,” Fukuoka said.
Of course, the insatiable Japanese pursuit of cleanliness and love of high-tech gadgets have driven the development of the high-tech toilet, he said. On top of that, Japan’s two toilet companies have competed to transform the dirty and dark toilet room into a luxury item, recalled the 57-year-old Fukuoka, who for the last 20 years has devoted his time and energy to transforming the toilet into the current luxury room.
Happily for Fukuoka, this is reflected in a “senryu,” or Japanese version of short poetry, submitted by a child to Toto’s recent annual senryu contest:
This is my room
My dad says
Now that people spend a relaxing time such as taking a nap or e-mailing and Net-surfing on mobile phones on the toilet in Japan, there is a growing desire to see the toilet as a private environment.
Toilet makers say that only time will tell whether American buttocks welcome the high-tech toilet, but some consumers are still skeptical.
Some pointed out that Toto’s ad failed to mention that users of the Washlet don’t need any toilet paper, saying they never manage to clean themselves without using toilet tissue.
It also looks time-consuming to finish the whole process before their business is done, said Anthony Yep, a 26-year-old worker in the heath-care industry in Washington, D.C.
“The problem I see with this is that people are so used to using tissue paper that when they see this ad, they will think, wow, it’s neat, but too much work. It takes too much time to press the button, wait for the water to shoot out, then dry — just not what Americans are used to. They want things fast and quick,” he said after seeing the online ad his friend sent him.