I have a recollection being in a childhood school assembly where a poll was taken as to which brand of toothpaste each person used. The schoolmaster (the only one – this was a small country school), not content with a show of hands, instead opted for a kind of creeping death, starting at the front of the group, and working to the back with each individual in turn declaring their brand loyalty. I don’t recall what the purpose of this particular exercise was. Probably, he was short of assembly material. Being one of the youngest, I was at the back. So far, so un-traumatic, except that as the brand declarations crept around the room, it was apparent that I was alone in using Mr Men toothpaste (either that or the others were lying). So when the toothpaste confessions reached me, I lied too, and pretended I used another popular brand. Honour protected.
On getting home I immediately decided to change my shameful toothbrushing behaviour, and went in search of an alternative more worthy of the respect of my peers. As it happened, a free sample tube had arrived through the letterbox earlier in the week, and I immediately adopted this as my preferred brand without further thought, and have stuck with it obsessively and occasionally evangelically ever since. The moral of this story is that marketing companies should get their claws into young children at an early age. Oh, no, wait…
This particular brand was obscure at best, as you may have guessed from their need to shove it through letter boxes. It came perilously close to extinction altogether a few years ago. I found myself anxiously scanning the shelves in chemists in remote towns I would visit, looking to replenish my dwindling supplies. Occasionally, I would come across a town with no active demand, and go from chemist to chemist buying their entire stock just to keep myself going for as long as possible after the now inevitable end. I knew I was clinging on to an impossible dream – would I be left mournfully cleaning my teeth under an incandescent light bulb, watching re-runs of 1990s toothpaste adverts on a 4:3 ratio cathode ray television? (The answer is “yes”, by the way.)
I have become more accepting of my fate, and my stocks have now dwindled to an almost acceptable four tubes. As I eat into this supply (not literally, you understand, I use it for cleaning my teeth) I anxiously look to an uncertain future, and now scan the shelves of chemists for alternatives. This is a kind of acceptance, I suppose, at least. But toothpaste has moved on, and I am a toothpaste dinosaur. It is not simply enough for toothpaste to clean teeth, but now it must serve ancillary purposes as well. It must whiten, or rebuild teeth from the outside in, or the inside out. It must control things I didn’t know needed controlling, and if it’s not increasing something, then it had better be reducing something else. Presumably, we’re long past the point where most toothpaste actually does a pretty good job of cleaning teeth, so the manufacturers have had to come up with other things that you didn’t realise you also wanted it to do in order to sell it you.
The most spectacular claim to fame is with a relatively new toothpaste, which proudly sports a version of the following graph on the tube. Now, I may be old fashioned, no, scratch that, I’ve stuck with the same brand of toothpaste for over thirty years, I am old fashioned. But the unique selling point of this toothpaste appears to be that you’re going to hate it. Not only that, but you’re going to hate it in quite a big way for an indeterminate and potentially quite long period of time. What kind of a market is so absolutely stuffed to saturation point that the only way to distinguish yourself from the competition is to be unpalatable?
It’s possible that I’m being pedantic here. It really is possible. After all there is no scale on either axis, but this is an interesting curve. There is admittedly no SI unit for product satisfaction (a First Great Western, perhaps? Perhaps too small a unit…) but judging by the smiley faces, this is a pretty significant turn-around we’re looking at, and this curve is exponential. Although we don’t know how long we’re going to unhappy with this product for, the rewards look pretty enticing. Exactly how enticing is hard to establish. The curve just ends. What happens at this point? Do we ascend to some toothpaste Nirvana? Or is this the point at which the rest of life becomes meaningless, and so mere graphical representations of just how good this product are will lose any sense? Will we turn into toothpaste junkies, with dull circular eyes and a fixed grin, initially sneakily cleaning our teeth at lunch time in the toilets at work, starting out on that slippery slope that leads to us joining that army of people you see on the streets, cleaning their teeth continuously, their lives just a means of gathering money to fund the next fix?
I shouldn’t be so rude. I suspect my version of the graph wouldn’t sell much toothpaste either. As for me, I’m switching back to the Mr Men.