A few days ago a vague friend of mine put out a definitively non-newsworthy Facebook Post, kindly informing the world that ‘It’s taken me literally an hour to choose a toothpaste ‘.
Now, let’s put her use of the word ‘literally’ aside for one moment* (see appendix, if you care) and focus on her deliberation. We’ve all seen people in the supermarket looking utterly flummoxed when faced with a sparkling wall of toothpastes or toothbrushes to choose from. I’ve certainly been in that situation before, in some of my more lackadaisical moments. It’s even worse when there’s two of you there, scanning up and down and across and gawping like carp.
It seems at first like this would be the kind of everyday consumer decision that wouldn’t take much time and effort whatsoever: toothpaste is basically just toothpaste, regardless of the red/white/blue/sparkle ratios on the box. I’ve never, not once, heard or seen anyone rave about a particular brand, saying ‘It promised it would make my teeth one whole shade whiter in two weeks… and it did!!!’ Not in the same way that, say, Apple devotees want to show you endlessly just exactly how synced their photo stream is, or get Siri to conduct some menial task then look at you with an expectant grin.
But somehow, the choice isn’t the simplest one. Let’s pull this apart and take a look at some of the murky marketing undercurrents at play here. It turns out you can learn a lot from looking at how toothpaste sells itself.
First off, there’s barely even any difference between different toothpaste’s demographics or marketing strategies, not like how we know that Right Guard targets itself at athletes, and LYNX is for guys who stand around hunch-shouldered at clubs flexing their muscles and wondering why the thing that happened in the advert with the women isn’t happening to them yet. If there were a MAN’s toothpaste with ‘carbon technology’, a name with an X in it and ‘pieces of real iron’ or whatever, it would probably be a whole lot easier for us.
Likewise if supermarkets stocked an organic toothpaste, or one with flakes of silver in it, or one that was aggressively chemical with ‘active neo-poly-chloride compounds’ or some such shit.
Let’s put the UK toothpaste scene into perspective: Japan has toothpaste made from melted fish scales, for the daring. They also have a widely available one that’s aubergine flavour, and a yet more adventurous one – Deep fried octopus. Unilever launched a ‘Men’s toothpaste’ (really?) that was rolled out in France last year. We go as far as having the choice between ‘polishing’ and ‘whitening’ (except, admittedly, for 1950s relic Euthymol, which is always somehow on the shelf but tucked away and out of sight like Wheezy the penguin from Toy Story, and god only knows who buys it. I did once; big mistake).
We also know that toothpaste marketing is particularly underhand, exploiting this weird sort of limbo space that isn’t quite inside but not quite outside our bodies – an in-between space (a weird kind of Foucaldian heterotopia,** for you crit theory buffs) – and doing everything it can to make us anxious about its current state of filthiness. It makes a private space into a performative one. The marketing reinforces the idea that we’re all looking at each other’s mouth and judging (which is, of course, true, as a direct result of the anxiety created by the marketing in the first place. You’ve got to hand it to them).
We know that adverts don’t just work upon our fears and desires but in many cases actually create them, building new anxieties that only purchasing their product will alleviate. Just think: I can’t recall a single example of pre-20th century writing where an author or poet has rhapsodised about a woman’s teeth, not in the same way that Shakespeare and Milton bang on about ‘golden tresses’ and ‘hyacinthine locks’. It seems like it’s only fairly recently in history that we’ve started actually giving a shit (If you’re interested, the first toothpaste that marketed itself as making teeth look whiter was only made in 1989). As a weak means of providing evidence to this, consider the following: I do not know of one portrait of a woman throughout all of Europe’s art history where a woman is pictured grinning and showing her teeth, yet now every single red-carpet show features a toothy, dazzling grin.
The fact of the matter is that we do care about our teeth, and by extension we do care about the toothpaste we use. And although any supermarket has at least twenty options to choose from, they’re all pretty much the same: whether it markets itself as ‘whitening’, ‘advanced whitening’, ‘polishing’, ‘plaque removal’, ‘freshening’ or – and this is more and more the case these days – some version of ‘all of the above’, it’s the same product, for the same purpose, doing the same thing.
I think the difficulty comes not because of the range of toothpaste, but because of the limited range within a large selection. If there were 20 kinds of radically different toothpaste in different coloured packaging with totally different ingredients then it would be simple: the one that’s right for you would jump out at you and that would be that. The difficulty comes in recognising the difference between them, and working out which one is right for you, even though you ultimately know that they’re all the same product. It’s not about what’s going to do a good job, but about what’s going to reassure you the most that you bought the one that suits you.
There’s probably a term for this in economics or marketing which I’d love to know, and if anyone does know of anything like this then please inform me. What I’m interested in, though, is the extent to which we can recognise what I’ll call for now ‘the toothpaste effect’ (the difficulty of choosing something you need when faced with a large selection of an extremely narrow range) and see it all over the place. But there’s one area where you can really see it: politics.
Somewhere along the line, our idea of what ‘right’ toothpaste looks like calcified into the red-white-blue plethora we boggle at so regularly today. And it seems like just as there’s a ‘right’ way of doing toothpaste, there’s a ‘right’ (no pun intended) way of doing politics, deviations from which seem to only lose assurance. The goal of the toothpaste manufacturer is not to deliver the best results, but to appear as much as possible like the kind of toothpaste that delivers the best results. And so it is with today’s politics.
Our last election stands as testament to this, where the biggest criticism facing the big two parties was their similarity. In Italy in the 70s, choosing between the two biggest parties meant choosing whether or not to abolish all private property or keep things the way they are. In May, the choice between the big two in the UK meant little more than mildly variating degrees of the same basic principles and ideological goals.
Even though the way the country has been governed over the past 5 years has been highly contested by just about everyone somewhere along the line, it seems like as a nation we’re scared of having it different. We’re not ready for change on a meaningful, drastic scale, even if it is (objectively) for the better. We’ve stuck with what reassures us that it will at least work, even if it doesn’t, and our politics is one of rhetoric, marketing and reassurance of remarkably similar promises and aesthetics. It’s no longer about support, it’s about buy-in.
Let’s take a quick scan of the political and dental landscapes and see what we see. If the Conservative party had to be a toothpaste, it would pretty much definitely be Aquafresh. The big-chinned fellow below has an uncanny resemblance to a certain current Prime Minister, grinning smugly as he makes cuts left right and centre to everything fun and loved by all.
The ‘everyday sugars’ mentioned above could qualify as any number of the bullshit things Cameron regularly stresses the importance of protecting ourselves from as a means of diverting attention away from what really matters in government. He’s probably drafting up the ‘Sugar Acid Protection’ defence bill as we speak.
The Labour party, on the other hand, finds its readiest expression in Colgate, a brand that has more red-intensive marketing but still use just the right amount of white, blue and sparkle to play it safe.
Here’s a party that relies on bold promises and a long-standing heritage that they no longer really represent. Interestingly enough, Colgate has actually been around longer than the Labour party. Labour, of course, have a problem with being split up all over the place, more of a political archipelago than a united party. This is kind of reflective of Colgate’s bafflingly large selection of toothpastes, such as ‘MaxFresh’, ‘MaxWhite’, ‘Advanced White’, ‘Deep Clean Whitening’, ‘Whitening + Fresh Breath’, ‘Cool Stripe’, ‘Gum Health’, and, perhaps best of all, ‘Colgate Blue Minty Gel’. This has been somewhat rectified with their introduction of ‘Colgate Total’, which just covers all bases, except it’s not that Total at all otherwise they wouldn’t have felt the need to release a ‘Colgate Total Advanced’.
Pertinently to this discussion, Aquafresh sales have crept up on Colgate ones over the past ten years, and Colgate is using less red in its packaging. That was until they released a toothpaste called ‘Max White One’, which is entirely red and currently dominating sales. In my strained, confused and somewhat ill-founded analogy that’s gone on for too long now, this would be Corbyn (long may he reign).
The Green Party are, of course, not actually a toothpaste at all. Instead, they’re those ‘Toothy Tabs’ that you can buy at Lush, that as far as I understand it are semi-natural pellets that you chew on whilst trying to hold back the abundance of emergent foam. Many people swear by them, although of course not enough, and as it stands they’ll never topple the iron rule of toothpaste. However, this doesn’t stop the Greens from foaming at the mouth (and rightfully so).
Ukip aren’t a toothpaste either because they can’t be arsed to brush their teeth, although if they did they’d go for one that had ‘WHITENING’ in the biggest letters, or perhaps Blue Minty Gel. The Socialist Party are, without a doubt, Arm and Hammer. Meanwhile, The Liberal Democrats are Crest, i,e., who?
The point is though, is that although we may have a wide range of toothpastes and political parties to choose from, when it comes to the two that really mattered at the last election there wasn’t a world of difference. They were both based upon reassurance more than anything else, and more effort was put into facilitating people’s feelings of security rather than taking practical, transparent steps to actually provide them. A myth of reassurance has been spun around a system or approach that was ultimately arbitrary to begin with, and its less about effective results and more about belief in effective results. As George Pitcher brilliantly said, ‘We have covered politics and business in the tarmac of a spin-culture and then wonder why the grass isn’t growing.’
It seems as though our idea of good governance is fixed. And every morning and night, on our toothpaste tubes and flags, it’s still all just the same red, white and blue.
*Actually, let’s not: Presumably it didn’t literally take her an hour to choose a toothpaste, and its usage like this that prompted the Oxford English Dictionary to list new meanings of literally that include ‘sort of’ and ‘metaphorically’, which are of course the exact opposite of literally, and although this is a bold new move in the direction of descriptivism for OED it’s also kind of stupid and short-sighted, because the whole project of dictionaries is to clear up these linguistic ambiguities and kind of iron out the creases in the language, and now we have a very big crease indeed because if we want to use literally in the good-old-fashioned sense of ‘actually, sincerely, unexaggeratedly’ – like for example ‘she was literally crying with laughter’ – then we now presumably have to say ‘she was literally literally crying with laughter’, creating a weird linguistic paradox that I literally cannot resolve.
**You could go ahead and read that hyperlinked article, but seeing as you won’t I’ll just go ahead and briefly explain. A heterotopia is an idea that Michel Foucault (subject of a previous EFTTC piece) came up with. Basically, it’s a word to describe a space of ‘otherness’, that operates outside of usual constraints and polarities (or ‘non-hegemonic’, although I struggle with that definition to be honest). The space of a telephone call, for example, is a heterotopia, because it does not occupy space itself yet allows people to speak without being in each other’s. I always think of The Red Room from Twin Peaks, or the Hotel in Wind-up Bird Chronicle as heterotopias. The mouth qualifies as one because it’s not fully inside our bodies yet it’s not fully outside either, but a kind of limbo space. In terms of function, it’s subject to two conflicting interests: to macerate food and to stay spotless. It’s both a deeply private space where we begin the process of digesting our food, yet also very much a public one: We’re expected to have clean white teeth and for this to be apparent. I hope this whole heterotopia deal makes sense.