Varnish Remover

Toilet Training

Quilters, produced by J.J. Sedelmaier Productions Inc. for Quilted Northern Tissue.

Quilters would have you believe that bathroom tissue is more than trash in the making. Produced by J.J. Sedelmaier, who adapted the Japanimation-style Speed Racer to sell a new Volkswagen, it uses a reliable formula to good effect. It draws on the familiar–in this case, the film How to Make an American Quilt–and renders it different. Needless to say, success, in such cases, hinges on the ad maker’s ability to manipulate that fine line between the familiar and the clichéd: It’s all in the adaptation.

Released in 1995, How to Make an American Quilt drew a largely female audience. Some of the film’s leitmotifs–tradition as clarifier and stabilizer, a strong community of women–resurface in this spot, which promotes Quilted Northern Tissue. The animation soft, the music folksy, we are introduced to the “Quilted Northern Quilters,” a group of women creating handmade paper. It’s an engaging image, if an unlikely one. And though it isn’t clear why the women use knitting needles to quilt, the explicitly artificial setting makes the sale. Animation, which lets mice sing and lions be kings, saves the spot from ridiculing its own message.

It’s the first day for the quilting group’s newest entrant, but her integration is seamless, the bonding instant. The older women in the group–peas in a pod but for a multi-culti-mandated difference of skin color–are quick to reassure the novice. “Don’t worry, doll,” says the black woman. “Just keep quilting.” Because that, adds the white one, is what makes the sheets “so absorbent.” Fie on those of you who think quilted bathroom tissue is all about aesthetics: It’s utility, stupid. Quilters is a model exercise in branding, that Holy Grail of our times. Be it of dubious value, the extra element–“quilting” in this case–is designed to convince the consumer that paying more gets them more. The spot plays to a couple of postindustrial truisms: that proof of human workmanship qualifies as more; and that more is better. (Your alternative, Quilters reminds you, the music slowing to an ominous clank, is one of “those flat-as-a-pancake sheets made down the street.”) And it plays to the germ pathology that sustains the market for anti-bacteriants and investigative-report segments titled “Does Your Housecleaning Agent Really Protect Your Infant From the Salmonella That Will Turn His Insides Into an Oozing Green Swamp? Think Again.” Quilted Northern is quilted to create “thousands of places for moisture to go,” we’re told, the animation now reminiscent of 1950s spots that showed how a pill absorbed stomach acid. “And all that absorbency leaves you feeling cle-ean.”

It’s time for the happy ending: “Nice job, dear.” And for the final pitch: the brand name and a gentle reminder that Quilted Northern is “quilted to absorb.” The more effective because it is so simple, Quilters ends up confirming what the burgeoning market would deny: Less is, in fact, more.

–Robert Shrum