Paranoia is a persistent theme of 21st Century American life. We worry that cybercriminals, corporations, and our own government are spying on us via our computers, our phones, even our video games. By comparison, the 1970s seem like a simpler, more carefree time. Yet a review of some prominent ad campaigns of that decade suggest that personal privacy was under assault back then as well. That assault was happening in the nation’s bathrooms.
There were strange goings-on in the john four decades ago. Visitors from Madison Avenue kept showing up in the loo. Some of them were benevolent, like the mustachioed Dow scrubbing bubbles, who worked hard at cleaning tubs while the homeowner took it easy.
But even some ostensibly friendly bathroom helpers were undeniably creepy. For example, the miniature sailor living in the toilet, hawking Ty-D-Bol…
Could the presence of this uniformed man in the toilet tank have been what drove John Lennon, in 1980, to pen the curious lyric, “There’s Nazis in the bathroom just below the stairs”? If not, perhaps Lennon was reacting to the Big Brother-ish scenario in the series of Right Guard deodorant commercials in which men in adjoining apartments share a medicine cabinet, and thus a daily window into each others’ personal space.
In reviewing those last two spots, their tone is oddly lighthearted given the unsettling context of encountering uninvited interlopers in one’s bathroom. In that sense, it seems that the commercials weren’t actually reflections of paranoia on the part of consumers, but rather of a brazen disregard for personal boundaries on the part of marketers at the time.The 1970s were famously an era when many social taboos were thrown by the wayside and when, in the opinions of many, bad taste reigned. In 1957, the makers of an episode of Leave it to Beaver had to tread carefully around network censors when featuring in a scene where the boys in the show put a baby alligator in the toilet, reportedly not being allowed to even show the bowl. Less than two decades after that episode, standards had evolved to the point where Archie Bunker was routinely flushing the commode for laughs on All in the Family. For better or worse, bathrooms became fair game as TV settings in the ‘70s.
At the same time, the decade was a period when American big business had developed a reputation for arrogance, complacency, and tone-deafness toward changing consumer tastes (exemplified by U.S. automakers failing to make the stylistic and fuel efficiency adjustments needed to keep pace with Japanese imports). Some corporations seemed to be operating under the belief that they could use the brute force of the TV-Industrial Complex to make the public buy anything they had to sell, and that their messages need not be thoughtful or even persuasive, so long as they were relentless. In fact, the advertising of the time appeared to go out of its way to present intrusive scenarios.
It may very well be that these commercial bathroom intrusions were the result of TV finally being allowed to peer into the bathroom at precisely the moment when marketers were least sensitive to the notion that consumers might bristle at the idea of receiving a sales pitch during their most private moments. Or perhaps we are overthinking it and the commercials are nothing more than vintage 1970s pop-cultural loopiness. Either way, we agree with Mr. Lennon’s lyrical assessment of the era: Strange days indeed.